We must choose our words more carefully if we are to get to grips with the illegal wildlife trade and contribute meaningfully to much-needed debates.

By Roving Reporters

Criminologist and wildlife economy fundi, Dr Annette Hübschle calls it one of her “biggest a-ha moments”. Sitting in a circle of about 10 people in a community adjacent to Kruger National Park, she asked: “What does the rhino mean to you? Have you ever seen a rhino? What do you think about rhino protection?”

In essence, people replied, “The rhino has a ranger, a police officer; the rhino has land, a doctor that looks after it. And we don’t have these things. And maybe if the rhino goes extinct, we can finally get those things.”

These people were living near the park’s fence line but had never seen a rhino. They felt the animals were being looked after much better than them, said Hübschle.

Dr Annette Hübschle warns that sensationalist reporting and militaristic language deepens social divisions in areas affected by wildlife crime.
(Photo: Supplied)

Hübschle, a chief research officer at the University of Cape Town, was referring to the “big disconnect” that separates national parks from their neighbours – mostly people who get few services from the state but are denied access to the natural spaces their forefathers turned to for water, wood, game meat and fish.

She participated in a recent Khetha webinar on the social impacts of wildlife crime, along with Sboniso Phakathi, programme manager for Rural Initiatives for a Sustainable Environment at the Southern African Wildlife College. 

The webinar series forms part of a journalism training and story-writing grants initiative supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the United States Agency for International Development. 

Organised by Jive Media Africa, the series aims to foster improved media coverage of the illegal wildlife trade and conservation challenges, particularly in the Greater Kruger area

Hübschle and Phakati were critical of shallow and alarmist crime reporting that ignored real-life experiences of people living alongside national parks.  

Ever-changing dynamics 

Hübschle, who has a doctorate in social sciences and economics, has long been researching the illegal wildlife trade in Greater Kruger — both on the park’s western boundary and to its east, in Mozambique.

“I have spent a lot of time in Mozambique – my first trip to look at wildlife crime was in 2012. Back then I came across many traditional communities, villages and livelihoods. But a year later, rhino poaching had increased and you could see visible impacts of these poaching profits moving into a community,” she said.

Sex and cellphones

Within a short space of time, people were carrying smartphones and there was increasing trade in fast-moving consumer goods.

“In one village where I spent a lot of time, there was suddenly a nightclub, bars… the things we would normally associate with urban areas.”

In some villages and towns, prostitution seemed more apparent and the use of hard drugs went up.

She also mentioned that in Mozambique, some kingpins of the illegal rhino horn trade splashed out cash to keep in favour with the community. For example, they provided boreholes to villagers, a boon in a poor part of the world where water and food can be scarce and clinics or police stations are few and far between. Sometimes, after a successful rhino hunt, poaching bosses slaughtered a cow so locals could feast.

But Hübschle said things were changing.

“On my most recent visit to Mozambique, I saw a lot of half-built houses. Some of the poachers have disappeared or have been arrested. There are huge risks attached to wildlife crime for families of poachers and poachers themselves.”


Phakathi has also been to Mozambique to understand better the realities facing the Kruger Park’s eastern neighbours. 

Sboniso Phakathi says ‘alarmist reporting’ might have helped get people’s attention when rhino poaching was on the rise, but that narrative has shifted, largely due to social scientists entering the conservation space. (Photo: Supplied)

“The first thing that struck me was that hunger is a big issue in Mozambique, particularly in the more northern, rural communities,” he said, adding that 46% of the population lived below the national poverty index. They survive on R38 a day or less.

He witnessed hunger, with young children begging for bread on roadsides, and spoke about how Mozambique – with its history of civil war and displacement – struggled with malnutrition and inadequate housing.  

Many communities lived directly off the land, Phakathi said, relying on fishing or hunting for small animals. Some kept a few livestock like goats. Others sell fresh produce or work in the charcoal industry.

Different worlds

Phakathi observed that in Mozambique, certain interventions like getting people to plant cashews rather than rely on catching fish were more feasible than in South Africa. 

The south and central areas on the South African side of Kruger, he said, were densely populated and fast becoming peri-urban, with many people working in mines, farming and eco-tourism.

Home truths

Both Phakathi and Hübschle stressed that future conservation efforts need to consider the historical and complex social dynamics that have shaped the thinking of people living near protected areas, in particular their views on conservation and wildlife crime.

“People are dealing with issues like rape, poverty, not having enough food, loss of their livestock… the list goes on,” said Phakathi.

Phakathi added that it was important not to denigrate or downplay the important role of law enforcement, particularly in cracking down on highly organised players in the illegal wildlife trade. 

But he felt that there was a strong need to broaden policing focus to include the safety and security of communities – “only then can we have meaningful conversations around the illegal wildlife trade”. 

The densely populated spaces near the parks “are part of the ecosystem too”.

Access to the park

It was vital, Phakathi added, that these residents, in particular the young generation, get access to what the Kruger Park offers and how it contributes to overall prosperity, generating revenue through tourism, creating employment opportunities, supporting community development and preserving natural resources.

“You know, nature is something that speaks to us all as people,” he said.

Valuable partnerships

So, who should be creating these relationships and what successful initiatives might be adopted and applied more widely, asked webinar facilitator Yves Vanderhaeghen.

Veteran journalist Yves Vanderhaeghen is among the directors of the Khetha Story 2024 Project. He also facilitates Khetha webinar discussions. (Photo: Supplied)

“Everybody in these areas has a role to play,” replied Phakathi, adding that his work went beyond protected areas. 

Hübschle agreed: “We cannot preach and say this is how conservation should work (without consultation). We need to look at how to bring people in. And it’s also very important to provide livelihood options, and not just in the conservation sector,” she said. 

Hübschle acknowledged that the Kruger Park couldn’t be expected to provide jobs or benefits to all 3.5 million people living on its western boundary, but said we would do well to look around for lessons. 

In Namibia, for example, where Hübschle grew up, several community conservancies have successfully involved people in conservation. However, the demographics in the Greater Kruger area were vastly different.

She said other approaches beyond conservation needed to be explored… “We need to look at rural development initiatives and livelihoods. It’s really important,” she said.

Moral panic

Webinar host Vusi Tshabalala probed the panellists’ perspectives on media reporting on wildlife crime. For example, did reporting on the poaching of high-value species like rhinos and pangolins inadvertently lead to an increase in wildlife crime? And if so, what could journalists do?

Vusi Tshabalala, a community engagement specialist at the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Region, is on the Khetha 2024 Story Project steering committee and hosted the webinar discussion on the social impacts on wildlife crime. (Photo: Supplied)

Phakathi said journalists walked a tightrope in this regard, and that the same might be said of their role in stoking “moral panic” over wildlife crime. He was borrowing a term from sociology that describes a widespread feeling of fear that some evil person or thing threatens their interests or well-being.

But this public discourse was rapidly changing due to an increasing number of social scientists delving into poaching, helping to understand its complexities and the kind of broad solutions, beyond policing, that are needed, said Phakathi.

Hübschle agreed that more social scientists were working on the problem (by her telling, she was among the first) but also paid tribute to Kruger conservationists, including “some amazing people” who were doing “good work in reaching out to and working with people living near the park”.

“There has been a big change in conservation thinking which is amazing and I think we really need to appreciate this is happening.”

Hübschle said Kruger conservationists and government officials had also realised it was not positive to talk about a “war on poaching” or the “rhino war”, which, like the US’ failed “war on drugs”, risked alienating the people it sought to reach.

“If you want to invite people into conservation, that language is not helpful,” said Hübschle.

Additional reporting by Charlene Wandera, Kemunto Ogutu, Tulani Ngwenya and Nyameko Ishmael Bottoman – leading representatives of the Khetha New Narratives ’24 reporting team.