What does poaching look like?
Well, the strange truth is that despite living in the middle of the rainforest, and working on a team who spends most their time trying to catch poachers, my role in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park is essentially an office job. I’m 1,000 km away from the nearest office block, but nonetheless, my daily routine involves walking the 140m from where I sleep, to a small “administration” building, where I sit at my desk and doing fairly run-of-the-mill financial and administrative tasks. I write lots of emails, I sign bits of paper, I move numbers in a spreadsheet from one column to another. Some people would hate it, I personally love it. I have creative freedom to solve the problems that the organisation faces, and I know that every ounce of effort I save the team by making things more efficient, means that they have more ability to protect the forest. Admittedly too, majestic forest elephants walk past my window a couple of times a week, there is normally a family of DeBrazza and Black and White Colobus monkeys playing in the bush across the way (species that are very hard to see in normal circumstances), and for much of the day I am interrupted by a panoply, indeed a cacophony, of tropical bird song. So it would be disingenuous to call it run-of-the-mill. But the point is that, even though I’m working all day to stop them, I’ve only ever actually seen poachers on two occasions.
When I finally came face to face with poachers, they did not look like I expected them too. Perhaps it is this revelation which has led me to think about what the face of poaching really is? What does poaching really look like?
I think that if you try to answer that question, you’ve probably already got an idea in your head. The very word poaching elicits a clear sense of illegitimacy and wrong-doing. I’ll bet that the image is a sinister one, perhaps he’s hunched over an AK47 rifle in the scrub, scars on his face and malevolent look in his eyes. For me, I have this kind of archetypal, demonic picture in my mind. For me, certainly when I’m feeling more emotive, this picture is one of my leading candidates for “the face of poaching”.
Indeed maybe he’s standing in front of the elephant he has just butchered. If you’ve never seen an elephant carcass after they’ve had their tusks removed, then make sure you’ve not just had your dinner and search for some images on Google. Getting the tusks out of an elephants is a gruesome business. Chainsaws are normally necessary, plus a mixture of machetes and savagery. The poachers essentially saw the elephants face off.
While this is horrific, and deeply depraved, the truth is that an answer to our question is just not this simple. The poachers that I’ve actually seen were very sorry looking fellows. Both had been arrested (by us) and frankly they just looked like anyone else that you’d walk past in a village up here. Normal enough human beings. Perhaps a little more desperate, perhaps a little more ragged. The reality is that poaching in our part of the Congo Basin is mostly done by local people in rags. They are poor, they are hungry and they are just looking for money.