Killing fields: The big game hunters who are fighting poachers in southern Africa

— WARNING: The following article contains graphic descriptions and imagery of the barbarism inflicted by poachers on wildlife —

Rio Save/Mokore Safari anti-poaching game scouts with gin traps recovered on their Mozambique concessions and guns confiscated from arrested poachers. Photo: Mokore Safaris

Paying hunters play a critical role in helping rid the African safari scene of its biggest scourge: inhumane poachers with their deadly traps. Professional Hunter Kevin Thomas witnesses their efforts first-hand

When you’re a PH guiding a hunting safari, you don’t envisage that you and your client may end up having to play ‘game ranger’ at some stage. But that’s become something of the norm in many remote parts of southern Africa in this modern era.

Some years back I was guiding a hunting safari in Zimbabwe’s Chete Safari Area, on the southern shoreline of, and extending southwards from, Lake Kariba’s central basin. One morning we were hunting along the Lwizilukulu river, close to where it drains into the aforementioned lake. Our target was a buffalo cow that we had earmarked as leopard bait for an inbound safari, scheduled to arrive by charter flight two days later on the same aircraft that would be taking out my client.

We’d ventured barely half a kilometre from our vehicle when we found the first ¼” cable snare. It had been cunningly set and camouflaged on a main game trail leading down to a well used drinking place at the water’s edge. Not 30 metres further on we found another, then another – and so it went on. What had started out as a buffalo hunt quickly became an anti-poaching snare recovery exercise, and by the end of it we had lugged 25 snares back to my hunting rig. We didn’t shoot a buffalo until much later.

The devastation wreaked by these crude traps on wildlife is immeasurable

Chete Safari Area is a Zimbabwean government concession, leased out by tender or auctioned around every five years to commercial safari operators. However, by 2013 operators had stopped bidding for it after poaching rendered it almost non-viable as a commercial safari venue. The hunt I’m talking about took place in 2012, and even then Zimbabwean Parks & Wildlife Authority management was non-existent in the Chete. The warden had gone AWOL the month before and no replacement had been hired; there wasn’t a single patrol vehicle or boat to be seen on the concession, and, rather than conducting anti-poaching patrols, the handful of game scouts were engaged painting signboards outside the warden’s office.

Meanwhile, Zambian and Zimbabwean poachers were enjoying a field day. They weren’t just snaring game on a huge scale; they were also gill-netting all the Chete tributaries flowing into the lake. So confident were the Zambian poachers that they didn’t even bother crossing the lake back to Zambia at the day’s end – they merely set up camp with fires burning brightly on the tributaries’ islands.

Somebody has to police this blatant and grossly destructive poaching activity, and these days it invariably falls to a PH, his paying clients and the trackers, rather than the government agency responsible. Within the safari industry it’s well known that the all-important ground coverage inside these vast areas is carried out by safari operators and paying sport hunters – and it’s the latter’s money that enables this to happen. Without the direct finance and involvement of such hunters, the situation would be a disaster, and very rapidly, there’d be no game left.

A young eland cow with her left front leg caught in a poacher’s gin trap and demos (traditional axes) buried in her body. Anti-poaching staff on the Rio Save/Mokore Safaris concession euthanised her. Photo: Mokore Safaris

Photographic safaris, because they’re vehicle-based, don’t involve ground coverage, so they’re ineffective as an anti-poaching tool. Between the end of one hunting season and the start of the next, a hunting safari operator will continue to conduct anti-poaching, cross-grain patrols on his concession – a task involving substantial costs.

As a 17-year-old cadet game ranger in pre-independent Zimbabwe during the mid-1960s, I was able to see for myself the sheer destructiveness of cable snare lines. Shangaan poachers would set them up in a 360-degree circle around the drying waterholes in the Gonarezhou National Park, near the Mozambique border, during late winter. By September/October, daytime temperatures had reached 43C (110F) and with the sections between the snares fenced with brush, the animals’ only route to water was via a cable snare laid across a game trail. The slaughter was horrific, and because the snares were seldom checked, countless animals died a dreadful, lingering death before rotting in the heat. Trees surrounding these waterholes were festooned with satiated vultures while lions, hyenas and jackals grew fat; indeed, if the wind blew in a certain direction, the stench of rotting carcasses could be detected from half a kilometre away.

Thankfully, commercial safari hunting operators in Africa now play a vital role in the ongoing anti-poaching war (for want of a more apt term). In Zimbabwe, the Bubye Valley Conservancy’s anti-poaching game scout force of 85 men is chiefly funded by sport hunters; the same is true of the equally efficient anti-poaching teams in Mozambique, run by Rio Save Safaris and their shareholders, including Mokore Safaris, on their coutada (concessions). The anti-poaching teams on both the Mokore Safaris Zimbabwe Save Conservancy block and their government-leased Sengwa Research Area are also financially supported by sport hunters.

A snare embedded in the bone just above the left front hoof of the buffalo mentioned in the article

In Mozambique, poachers have perfected the art of using large homemade gin traps (or bear traps in America). Fortunately these aren’t used in Zimbabwe and I’ve never seen them in Zambia, though they may be laid at the point where Zambia borders Mozambique. Gin traps cause horrific injury and any animal, including elephants, unfortunate enough to step on them will invariably die a slow and painful death through starvation.

When I was in Mozambique’s northern Niassa province, we had to be careful in some places lest we inadvertently stepped on a hidden gin trap, some of which were strong and sharp enough to sever a human leg. Those we recovered were cut up and used as reinforcement in poured concrete. Handing them in to the police was an exercise in futility because they’d eventually find their way back into the hands of the poachers via corrupt policemen.

Poachers can be brazen, too. On one safari I was guiding, we shot a buffalo bull that had been suffering owing to a snare deeply embedded just above his left front hoof. The snare had been placed at a waterhole directly below the safari camp, not far from a water pump. Owing to his extreme pain, this particular buffalo had taken to aggressively chasing camp staff. Personally, I think a casual camp employee had been responsible for laying the snare during a lull between safaris or during pre-season when the camp was being readied.

Despicable act: Not even elephants are immune to the menace. Photo: Mokore Safaris

Most clientele who hunt remote areas in Africa travel in and out on charter flights, and don’t tend to notice the anti-poaching work taking place. So I’m trying to emphasise the importance of the paying sport hunter in the ongoing fight against poaching. It is vital that hunters continue to attend safaris on our continent because each contributes, via daily rates and trophy fees, towards ensuring that future generations will also be able to enjoy the privilege of a real African safari.

If one studies the photographs accompanying this article (as horrific as some are), you will have ample visual proof of why any ethical sport hunter can be justifiably proud of their chosen hobby. Despite the anti-hunting rhetoric that continues to be spouted in increasing measure, those who shout the loudest should spare a moment to look at the facts and these photos.

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