Pinching Poachers at the Source

elephants in zambia photo

Photo credit: Graham Racher/Creative Commons

In many places in Africa, the struggle between conservation officers and poachers resembles an actual war: Well funded criminals utilize advanced weapons technology, helicopters, night vision equipment, and more to illegally harvest endangered animals from protected areas.

This locks law enforcement into an all-out arms race at best but more often leaves them behind.

But if head-to-head confrontation isn't effective, then what is? Over the last several years, a company called Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) has proven that by providing viable alternative livelihoods for local people, poaching gets cut off at the source.The example, as outlined in The Solutions Journal is 42-year-old Stanwell Chirwa, a farmer in Zambia with a history of poaching. Years of poor yields and crashing market prices, he says, led him to hunting protected species. During his tenure, he admits, he killed 11 elephants, more than 20 buffalo, and kudu and eland. he was also arrested once and narrowly escaped arrest a second time.

His story is not unique. Poverty and hunger have driven many subsistence farmers to poaching, one of the few alternatives—albeit a dangerous one—available.

It was in this vacuum of options that COMACO saw an opportunity. In 2008 they established a farm extension program that focused on helping farmers increase their yields and increase farm prices—as long as participants pledged to give up poaching.

Chirwa was one of the early volunteers. He gave up his gun and returned to his fields, slowing building a farm that focuses on soybeans, peanuts, and honey. Today, he reports, he makes more money from his crops than he ever did as a poacher.

Research has shown, time and again, that community involvement is essential for conservation programs to succeed. The challenge, however, is making participation worthwhile for people that are themselves on the edge of survival. Initiatives that have focused on building revenue through tourism have had notorious difficulty passing money down to people in the community. Moreover, tourism programs do little to address food security—a major concern for many households in the region.

COMACO chose a market-based approach instead, offering higher prices for farm products if farmers agree to utilize a set of environmentally-friendly agricultural practices.

The results have been staggering. In less than a decade, actual food production has increased 37 percent and the annual incomes of participating families have more than doubled. In addition, farmers have surrendered 1,800 firearms and 70,000 snares in exchange for classes on carpentry, beekeeping, metalworking, and poultry husbandry and access farm extension services.

Because an emphasis is placed on techniques such as using compost fertilizer, near-zero tillage, and applying cover crops and agroforestry species to increase soil nutrients, the COMACO program has also helped slow land degradation in the region.

Perhaps most telling is the cost of the alternative: It costs law enforcement a minimum of $800 to arrest a poacher but it only costs COMACO $200 to retrain a poacher and start them on a path to a new livelihood.

It's a program that proves the answer to poaching is likely not through increasing militarization of preservation land but local participation—driven by genuine incentives.

Indeed, it's a path towards better living through conservation.

Read more about conservation programs:
The Problem With 'Shoot to Kill' Conservation
How Conservation Helps People, Too
How Better Conservation Measures Can Help Reduce Poverty

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