All was still as we sat down at the meeting, poachers on one side, KWS on the other and Save the Elephants right in the middle. You could cut the tension with a knife.
This was planned to be the first of many meetings initiated of Save the Elephants in an effort to bring the crisis out in the open and resolve it. 9 ex-poachers turned up, and were joined by KWS wardens, conservancy managers and national reserve wardens. It had been touch and go that morning, with the ex-poachers worried that they were walking into an ambush. Still they came, and were now sitting silently at the meeting wondering what would happen next.
With great courage, a KWS officer stood up and cleared his throat. “There were once two dogs” he began, “A stray dog and a trained dog. The stray dog was looking for food one day when he came across the trained dog, sitting behind a fence, in chains but eating a sumptuous looking piece of meat. With great excitement, the stray dog asked the other to share his meal, to which the trained dog replied ‘only if you wear my chains.’ Without a second thought, the stray dog walked away. He chose freedom, and went on his way to find food.” The officer turned to the ex-poachers with a smile and said, “We commend you for coming to the table, because today you have recognized that it is better to be free. Freedom to make an honest living, however difficult, is a better option than to live that life of crime, forever chained to your fear. For our part, we are willing to talk.”
And talk they did. The hardened men opened up and spoke about their vast networks and their run-ins with the law, including a story about one of the men breaking his leg as he ran from an anti-poaching plane, whose pilot was sitting at the table. They spoke about their reasons for engaging in the horrific act, feeling helpless in hard economic times. They said that they had never considered an alternative, that all this time, no one had ever told them about the benefits of wildlife. They talked about their need for freedom and wanting to make a difference under the new county government.
I was privileged and proud to witness all this, and to see the response they were met with. To enlighten the men on the benefits of wildlife, the NRT pilot, Peter Lempatu, spoke about growing up in a poor family and rising through a multitude of challenges to soar above the clouds, helping ordinary people trace their stolen cattle and protecting the land where he grew up. This gave them hope that even the regular Samburu man can make it and be an upstanding citizen who contributes to the welfare of his people.
The Samburu warden also added a valuable contribution when he asked us along with the county government representatives to increase the scope and presence of our education program, stating that a large number of poachers take to the crime because they don’t have the necessary qualifications to compete in the job market.
For me, the most thrilling moment was listening to the ex-poachers say, with all sincerity, that they had not only downed their tools of the heinous trade, but that they were now going to work to bring others like themselves on board. Hope was high in the air that day, as the county government promised to meet with them again to discuss their options for gainful employment.
This is only the beginning of this work with the communities, transforming criminals into champions for the environment and for the elephants we live to save.