Battling the Vic Falls poachers

A professional guide and tracker, Charles leads an anti-poaching unit out of the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge on a mercy mission to protect the wild life that can suffer agonies for days on end when caught in the strangling cable and wire snares set by callous poachers. “And it’s on the increase,” says Charles, “due to the hardships of people in these times of economic crisis. They are forced to survive and resort to poaching. But we also have gangs who have been operating for several years, targeting buffalo and other big game. “It’s a cruel business and very painful for the animals caught in the snares. which are of primitive design and work like a hangman’s noose. Animals following trails get their heads caught in the snare which tightens as they pull to get away and that is virtually the end of the animal. The worst scenario is when they are also attacked by hyenas in their helpless condition.” Charles leads a six-man team, using a personal safari vehicle and operating within a four-kilometre radius of Victoria Falls. By the end of last year, they had discovered 3 000 snares set over an 18-month period. They have the power of arrest and it is also a very risky job as the poachers are invariably armed with axes and spears. The unit carries only shotguns loaded with birdshot which is not very effective against either the poacher or a charging buffalo. The use of more deadly weapons has been rejected because of the danger of an accidental discharge in Victoria Falls itself. The tourist is protected as much as the wildlife itself. “Before I set up the unit, we sometimes saw animals suffering because of the effect of snares while on safari drives”, says Charles. “We don’t want the visitor who has come thousands of miles to see an animal caught in a vicious trap ‘ that is not a pretty sight. Our patrols provide a deterrent to this.” Charles and his men work very closely with National Parks and take a load off their shoulders within the area of Victoria Falls, covering part of the Zambezi River. Their principal support comes from the Safari Lodge itself, where Charles takes local and overseas guests on walking safaris. Companies and tour operators within the community, however, also contribute to protect their heritage. No wild life would mean no safari operation. While it is a frustrating form of work, Charles also sees much beauty around him, especially when he comes across an intact herd of impala or surviving kudu or sable. “I feel very satisfied when I drive around and see such creatures. The other day, however, I came across two kudu, a warthog and a buffalo ‘ all the victims of poachers ‘ and then you think: why am I doing it? Then people say: look what you have achieved, how many animals you have saved.” When arrested, poachers are handed over to the Town Council Police or National Parks and are prosecuted in the courts. They can be fined or sentenced to 250 hours community work. Others go to jail for three months. “Some will show remorse and I find myself in a moral dilemma as some are only trying to survive. But the law is the law and everything in the park is protected. But some come back again and again to poach and will even laugh at us.” Charles endeavoured to show why this is so. Some pay their fine next day, for they get 250 kgs of saleable meat from a buffalo and will sell it for a good price in the townships where there is a demand for meat. Kudu, impala, warthog, sable, eland and bushbuck all end up on the table. The elephant is not a deliberate target but may lose its trunk as it struggles to free itself from the trap and that is a “very tragic sight”. The other kind of poacher ‘ the wood carver ‘ can also be arrested, although the fme would be lighter. This person is chopping down valuable indigenous trees such as mahogany, leadwood and ebony. Eighty per cent of the mukwa trees in the area have vanished. Charles has launched an educational programme for such offenders, encouraging them to buy the timber from the Forestry Department and then to sell their carvings to the shops at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. “However,” says Charles, “right at this moment you can be sure there is someone out there somewhere laying his heinous trap or cutting down our heritage. It never stops and that is why Victoria Falls has this dedicated band of anti-poachers.”

May 2006
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