Zimbabwe: ‘Commercial Poachers Should Rot in Jail’


By Jeffrey Gogo, The Herald

Date Published

Little by little, small actions taken today become bigger actions tomorrow, changing not only the course of history, but the future, also. Now, one Zimbabwean man, Mr Samuel Nkomo, 42, who is no stranger to wildlife, is trying to carve a niche in conservation history. After completing a 500km walk from Matopos to Victoria Falls last year, Mr Nkomo will soon begin another long walk from Harare to Kariba (360km), all in the name of rhino conservation.

With just over 750 rhinos left in conservancies around Zimbabwe, and under 5 000 of the black rhino and 20 000 white rhino remaining in the wild worldwide due to rampant poaching, Mr Nkomo was shocked into action.

He is not the first person to want to do something wild for the rhino, an animal faced with extinction.

Thirty years ago, prominent Harare conservationist, Charlene Hewat, cycled more than 22 000km around the world to raise awareness on this critically endangered species.

But what really drives otherwise ordinary people to want to do extraordinary stuff for animals that live in the wild, the kind that will kill you at first sight?

Mr Nkomo, a man who grew up herding cattle with other boys in rural Esigodini, and later became a professional guide, speaks about his motivation, work, vision and other conservation issues in the interview below. Will he achieve the kind of change he is walking for? Only time will tell. May be he needs to start running. I (JG)talked to Mr Nkomo (SM).

You are a professional guide, already involved in wildlife management, why walk specifically for the rhino, and not for the host of other endangered animal species?

Well, I am not walking for the rhino alone but all animals in Africa. I chose the rhino because we are losing more rhinos in Zimbabwe and South Africa than any other country on the continent. I chose the most affected animal in our country.

There are also a number of people who are riding on wildlife conservation to line their own pockets. What makes you different from these “other” people?

My gospel is to reach out to school children and locals. It has nothing to do with money. As the saying goes, “none of us inherited the wildlife from our grandparents but its loaned to us by our children.” So, I have to reach out to them and teach them about the God given gift to Africa.

Last year you walked 500km from Matopos to Victoria Falls. This year you are planning a 360km walk to Kariba from Harare. How do you assess the success, or failure, of your first walk, and what do you hope to achieve with the 2015 walk?

With the fist walk, I reached out to about 15 000 children and local people, which was good as it was of its first kind. There was no major sponsor because people did not think anyone normal can walk all that distance (for a wild animal). In 2015, a lot of people now know about my first walk, which I think will get support from the public and Government. This year, I intend to invite all school children around Harare to send me off.

We have the Friends of The Environment (FOTE), which also has its walkathon each year. Now, how effective are walking actions by groups such as the FOTE and by yourself, as tools for promoting wildlife conservation in Zimbabwe? Is the message really getting home, to those that need to hear it most, like poaching gangs?

I have no idea about the FOTE. However, talking of myself, the message has been well received by those whom I met. As of the 15 000 I reached out to in my first walk, they are now more interested in wildlife than before.

Teachers and school children alike now want to work in national parks and to be professional guides like me. With the local poachers, the message is well received, but am not sure with the commercial poachers.

I personally believe that if we work together on the African continent, we can succeed in the fight for the safety of our wildlife and the support I am receiving from concerned citizens, wildlife conservationist and Government officials more awareness can be achieved. The walks are a major initiative, which will go a long way to support the efforts aimed at galvanising people to support conservation, and the sustainable use of the precious gifts given to us.

Zimbabwe has decided to sell a portion of its elephant herd to willing countries. As a conservationist, how do you respond to such plans? Is this an intelligent plan or not? If not, what options are available to Zimbabwe in managing its elephant herd?

This was done before Independence, why should it not be done by the current Government? Elephants are second to man in altering the environment, as a result it affects and forces other species to migrate.

Presently, people would say culling is barbaric. Some will say translocation, but it is very expensive. I agree with what the Government is doing as long the money is ploughed back into wildlife conservation.

Government posits there’s an over population of elephants in Zimbabwe, which puts stress on limited resources like water. Sometimes elephants have been said to destroy homes and crops. What is the extent of trouble paused by a huge elephant population on conservation, community development and human livelihoods?

It’s true, there is an over population of elephants in Zimbabwe, especially at Hwange National Park. Water becomes scarce and in some cases they kill other animals for water.

In Hwange there is no major river so the elephants end up destroying boreholes, lodge pumps in search of water. Much of the locals staying adjacent to national parks survive by growing crops and elephants raid their crops during the farming season.

What sort of punishment would be sufficient to curb poaching, according to you, assuming you were the Environment Minister?

There are two types of poaching in Zimbabwe: subsistence and commercial. Subsistence occurs at the individual or family level. The solution is to teach communities about the importance of wildlife, employ them into conservation directly and indirectly so they can experience first-hand the benefits of wildlife management.

Education is the immediate solution to that, which is why I am walking to reach out to Zimbabweans.

Commercial poaching occurs at a much bigger level. It is a complicated syndicate with huge moneys involved. Unlike subsistence poachers, commercial poachers are already rich and well organised. Most are from outside Zimbabwe. They should rot in jail.

JG: Can anyone join you during your walks? I also understand you have been invited as a ‘guest walker’ in Zambia next month. Can you tell us more about that?

Everyone is allowed to walk with me as this is a national cause, especially the children. This will send a clear message to the whole world that as Zimbabweans we are all united towards our wildlife.

If you look at Kenya, there is my friend who inspired me Jim Justus Nyamu who walks for “Ivory belongs to Elephants” and has the first lady of that country as patron. The first lady does a few kilometres as well, which I also want to be in my case. I will be a guest walker in Zambia on the 12th of next month. I will do 20km finishing in Livingstone, in a walk themed “A long walk to school — Footsteps for the future.”

Organisers there are trying to raise money for children so that they can start their own wildlife society. I feel honoured to be invited. I will be undertaking another walk from Lusaka to Livingstone doing 465km invited by Southern Africa Safaris in Zambia. Also planning to walk in South Africa, China, UK, Australia and the United States.