Face-to-Face with Poachers

Face-to-Face with Poachers

by Betsy Mortensen on

About 5 years ago, I gave a few months of my time to help out on a chimpanzee population survey in western Tanzania. The project was trying to determine the status of different chimp populations in unprotected areas. Conservation funding is tight, and in order to get the most bang for the buck, it’s important to spend wisely. We were determining which areas held the most threatened chimp populations, so that they would be at the top of the list for protection funding. We needed to answer a few questions at each study site- Are there chimps here? How many chimps are here? And, importantly, are they under threat from human activity?


My first few days out in the remote mountain jungles and grasslands, I naively thought I was in an untrammeled wilderness. But as I learned the landscape more intimately, the evidence of people could be found all over –logging, lot burning to clear land for agriculture, herders passing through with cattle, and most jarring- poaching.


Poaching happens to all sorts of wildlife in Africa, not just rhinos and elephants. Many of the smaller animals are sought for their meat- which is used either to feed the poacher and their family, or it’s sold to make a profit at market. The bushmeat market impacts antelope, wild pigs, primates, and more. In Tanzania, despite lengthy imprisonment penalties, weak enforcement capabilities mean many poachers are free to continue about their business. Bushmeat sales are brisk and poaching can be the best economic option for people trying to support their families. It’s a difficult reality.

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One morning, out walking along a low bushpig trail in search of chimpanzees, I caught my foot in a poacher’s snare. I hadn’t even noticed the bent sapling, tethered lightly to the ground with blue twine. As my foot caught the delicately placed loop in the trail, the sapling leapt upwards, causing the loop to tighten around my ankle and lift me into an awkward one-leg hop. Kiumbe, one of our forest guides, rushed to my assistance and untangled my foot. He cut the snare rope and coiled it up to take it back to camp to burn, so it wouldn’t get in the hands of a poacher again.


Our forest guides were essential. Local to the area, they knew the landscape and the wildlife. They could pick up the faintest sign of an animal. Many of them had these skills because they used to be poachers. Mashaka Alimas, one of our guides and an incredibly talented outdoorsman, once told an animated story about hunting for elephant. He recounted the community coming together to feast on the elephant, and how one tackled the ribs. It was gruesome, but he was grateful to be done with his days of poaching. Now, because of the chimp survey with Ugalla Primate Project, and increased financial support of conservation in the region, he was able to make a living studying wildlife and deterring poachers.

Vlad Karavaev / Shutterstock.com 

Whenever we came upon poaching tools or activity, we would take action. Snares were cut, old poacher’s camps were burned, and spears were confiscated. Occasionally, I’d come face-to-face with poachers. The first time, a man was walking a game trail, 6-foot spear in hand, when we apprehended him. I was scared- images of assault rifle carrying poachers flashed in my head. Mashaka asked him what he was up to, and reiterated the fact that poaching was illegal and punishments were steep. The man was polite and conflict was avoided. Once he was out of hearing distance, Mashaka started laughing.


“Why are you laughing? That was scary!”


“No it wasn’t! Didn’t you see his face? He was scared to death of you.”


Though we had no ability to enforce poaching laws, most interactions I had with poachers involved their deep fear of me. Often, as soon as a band of poachers caught sight of me, they ran away as fast as possible. By the end of my time in Tanzania, I could confidently take up a stern face and tell poachers they needed to stop their operations, and that I’d be back to make sure they had left. It was the strangest thing to feel like a 5’6” blonde terror.


At the same time, I was deeply conflicted. While I could try to stop poachers from hunting, I couldn’t offer something else to support them. I couldn’t offer a sustainable source of food, or a steady job. Our chimpanzee survey could only support four guides, compared to the dozens of poachers hunting in the region. That is why funding conservation is so important- why Elephant Pants’ support of the African Wildlife Foundation is so important. By making wildlife more valuable alive than dead, by supporting local communities, we can change the tide for wildlife and people.


The author, Betsy Mortensen, volunteered for the Ugalla Primate Project and now runs Sustain Music & Nature, a nonprofit working to green the music industry.




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