How Did Rifles With an American Stamp End Up in the Hands of African Poachers?The question is at the heart of investigations by Congress and federal agencies into whether an American gun manufacturer is entangled in the shadowy world of arms smuggling and wildlife poaching. (Written by Ron Nixon, NYT, ) Read the full story on the New York Times.
In what was possibly my favourite assignment for the year (likely because I got to stomp around freely in the bush and my lungs were satiated with fresh Limpopo air) I spent a few days with the Protrack anti-poaching unit, the oldest anti poaching unit in South Africa, on a story about rifles with American stamps, found in the hands of poachers.
What we talked about a lot while keeping warm by the fire, or while tracking spoor and what affects me deeply me about the poaching scenario, is the structure of things. It is common knowledge that the men who climb the fences, cross the crocodile filled rivers, brave the lion, leopard and the anti-poaching guards and eventually drop a rhino with a rifle manufactured for someone else’s war, are not the final beneficiaries of this trade. But their families will eat for a few months with the money that they receive for doing it. A nominal sum compared to what the horn will be sold for thereafter, but in a country where jobs are scarce and people are poor, this is a living.
After weeks in the bush many rangers will go back to their homes and families, to live side by side in the same villages and townships as poachers.
It reminded me of how most of the notorious Red Ants eviction unit, come from the same or similar impoverished communities that they forcefully evict. Poor People. Divided and pitted against each other by their need to survive.
It reminded me of the black and brown policemen and women who block off the one or two exit/entry points to every township with nyalas, apartheid-style, and have to face off with communities whenever there is protest action. Often communities that are very similar to the ones that they come from themselves.
It is the dangerous work. The dirty work. It is work.
In the greater structure of things we have to keep asking ourselves, who are the true beneficiaries of all of this?
To rangers Sergeant Paul Penny, Fanie Mamba, Mahlatse Mahlo, Corporal Crow, Sipho Kgari, Martinus Johannes Reinecke, Veli Shabangu, Stefan van der Merwe, Glen Thompson, Shaene, Kenneth Matshate, Zacharia Motau, Sia Swart, Lucky Inama, Sibusiso Ngwenya and Given Mbuyane thank you for teaching me, for sharing your hearts, your stories and your rations with me.
In the fired sunlit bush at dawn or the coldest dark, in the hours of quiet lonely tracking thoughts, the dry crunch of grass under boots eyes scanning the wild for other eyes, the way the earth shapes around the dents of a spoor and the fear of not knowing what or who lies a few feet away, there is a strange harmony of calm and imminence here.
“We are here to protect the animals, but everything here, including the animals, want to kill us”.