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#1178 Poachers were killing Zambia’s wildlife until conservationists got smarter

Elephants in Zambia

Elephants like these in Zambia’s Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park are thriving again, thanks to COMACO; photo by Florence Devouard, via Wikimedia Commons

So many of the world’s ills have a similar cause: poverty. Yes, I know a lot of them are also the result of greed and carelessness, but eliminating poverty would go a long way toward making this a better world for everyone.

Take wildlife poaching, for instance. I have been known to point a righteous finger at poachers from the safe distance of my home. What I have not done is delve into the reasons people become poachers in the first place.

Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) in Zambia did just that. This is what they found:

It was a bad season for crops. Your food harvest was too little to carry your family through to the next harvest. The time you devoted to growing cotton kept you from growing more food and the money you earned from the cotton company is still not enough to meet your needs. You were desperate then and you’re desperate now. You have a family of 6, you have no money and no food. How are you going to feed your family? Today you don’t have any other crops to sell, so you have to find another way to survive… You take actions into your own hands and go out and kill an elephant so your family can survive. Conservationists around the world now hate you. They call you a greedy, selfish, inhumane poacher without even knowing the whole story…

In the National Geographic video below, you can see what COMACO did to address the poverty that led to poaching. After years of unsuccessful efforts to persuade locals to protect wildlife, Dale Lewis, biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and his colleagues visited villages where poachers lived. It was a drought year, and they discovered people who had no money and nothing but mangoes to eat. Poaching was keeping them alive.

That eye opener led to the formation of COMACO, a producer cooperative which trains people in farming practices that feed their families, provide income, and conserve the land. Commodities grown by COMACO farmers are processed centrally and sold as “organic, healthy, nutritious value-added products.” Other COMACO members learn marketable skills such as carpentry.

A poacher who wants to join COMACO persuades at least four other poachers to turn in guns and snares. That qualifies them for training and puts them on the road to financial stability. Thanks to COMACO, wildlife populations are increasing, and people are thriving.

The Wildlife Conservation Society was struggling with its mission until it stopped, listened, pondered, planned, and changed directions. That is pretty much what has to happen with any of the problems facing us, personally or politically. Community Markets for Conservation shows us that change really is possible, even when the problem seems impossible to resolve.


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