A fresh perspective on anti-poaching

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Kruger National Parl

A week ago I was in Hoedspruit, in the heart of the battle against poaching in South Africa's Kruger National Park and the private reserves that make up the Greater Kruger biosphere. I met a number of people involved in endangered species conservation, but perhaps the most startling encounter was with the head of one of the local anti-poaching organisations.

I had expected to be confronted by a gung-ho assault rifle wielding ex-military hard arse, and although Vincent Barkas is no pushover, his view of some of the most significant root cause issues influencing poaching is at odds with many of his more conservative contemporaries. In line with the output of some academic studies into the problem, Vince believes that a big part of the solution to poaching lies in resolution of the underlying social issues prevalent in the local communities that surround the Kruger, on both sides of the Mozambique border.

Unlike those who pontificate about the subject without getting their hands dirty, Vince has lived in some of the black communities. He sees the poverty that exists, understands the struggle that many face to look after and provide for their families, and recognises that there is a deep-seated sense that the conservation 'business' represents a form of white elitism.

Barkas talks about the way that he runs his business, which serves many private reserves in the area. He is diligent and committed, determined to provide the best protection service possible, but his approach is restrained and measured. His team will confront and deal with poachers, of that there is no doubt. However, the last thing that Vince wants to do is to shoot anyone. He is adamant that killing a poacher is counter-productive. "Every dead poacher will turn another 30 people against you in the local villages. They don't see you as having killed a poacher, they see you as having killed one of their family - a father, brother, son, or uncle."

So, with the help of Wild and Free, a non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting African wildlife, Barkas has launched an innovative initiative. He has set up a football tournament. Most poaching in the Greater Kruger is perpetrated by poachers who come across the border from Mozambique, so that is where he has started, providing good quality football strips, top notch football boots, and prizes for an inter-village tournament. The quid pro quo is that the local tribal leaders must prevent their people from poaching, and it seems the initiative is working. Barkas reports that since the football competition started, no rhino have been poached in the adjacent reserve. Instead, thousands of people have turned out to watch the matches, and a couple of real stars have come to light. A video of one young player has even been sent to a top British premiership football academy!

"Africans love sport," Barkas told me, "and football is their favourite. We have to give something back to these communities, and the football tournament is a start." I absolutely applaud the work that Vince is doing. It is refreshing to hear someone who is so close to the poaching problem recognise the need for an inclusive approach to the preservation of Africa's incredible wildlife heritage. I fully accept that community inclusion is not a panacea in itself, and that there are many aspects of the battle against poaching that need addressing concurrently, but I hope very much that others will fall in behind Vince's example.

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