August 20, 2010
When I think of poachers I think of the stereotype I learned very young from movies like George of the Jungle. Stupid and evil foreigners coming to get big game for trophy and profit. Images that come to mind are of lion skins, elephant tusks and rhino horns. An animal that I had never associated with poachers before: wildebeests. Wildebeests are hunted for their meat mostly by locals who need the money and can sell the meat quickly for a large profit. The punishment for hunting any animal in Tanzania is the same: life in prison. However this does not seem to deter the wildebeest hunters. Some of you may ask why this is such a major problem when there are over a million wildebeests in the great migration? The answer is habitat destruction.
The poachers set fires to distract the park rangers. The intention is that the rangers will go after the fires and they are free to hunt elsewhere. However they set too many fires and it becomes too much for the rangers to deal with and it causes untold habitat destruction. The grasslands are burned in controlled burns every five years or so, but that is done during the rainy season when the fires can be controlled and the wildebeests are not around. These fires cause massive environmental destruction, burning all the grass the wildebeests need to eat, which is the reason they migrate. Climate Change is already affecting the habitat leaving less fresh grass for them to eat, so when combined with the destruction from the fires, the wildebeests may be in serious trouble.
The fires also destroy vital habitats for other animals like the big cats who need the tall grass to hunt and trees for shade. The fires also can kill slow or wounded animals and can cause stampedes which can also lead to animal deaths. The poachers catch the wildebeests by setting metal snares in the bush, these snares can not be controlled once placed and can catch zebras, gazelles, lions, even elephants can get badly hurt by the snares.
The second day we were there one of the local lodges became in danger of fire and they hired local men to help stamp them out faster. These massive fires are too much for the rangers to deal with and if they hadn’t crossed paths with one of the lodge’s they might have kept burning doing untold damage.