Rhino poachers are just as human as you and me, with the same fears and dreams
It is easy to forget that there is always a human face behind the statistics which tend to dominate the rhino story.
If we want to be successful in our efforts to protect our natural heritage, including the rhino, we must listen to the people living closest to our wildlife - this is what I learnt during my experiences on the ground in Mozambique. Working with the Mangalane community next door to southern Kruger National Park, I have had the privilege of seeing the rhino story through the poachers' lens as "the horn of opportunity" and this has changed my perception of things.
It was in Mangalane that I first met Robert Tshange*, living in a tiny mud-and-pole house with a straw roof and no windows with his polite wife and three children all smiling from ear to ear.
Robert was once the most respected subsistence banana farmer in the community, but he couldn't have predicted the irreversible devastation of the tropical cyclone that washed away his home. The year was 2008 and the future became bleak for him and his family as there were no other employment opportunities at home or in SA.
Desperate times called for desperate measures and Robert's friend persuaded him that sometimes a man must die for his family to live. Rhino poaching seemed an easy task as he had adventured across these borderlands as a child and had impeccable animal-tracking skills.
After three successful kills, poaching seemed easy and became addictive because, with money in his pocket, his family felt resilient once again.
During their fourth attempt to escape skilful rangers, Robert made a mistake which cost him five years in a South African prison. During his time behind bars, he regretted the hours which he had lost with his family.
The promised assurance from his recruiter that his family would be taken care of while he was away never materialised. His feeling of betrayal and the suffering of his family affirmed his sense of failure to fulfil his duty as a man.
Upon his return, life in his village hadn't changed much, but his now six-year-old son could hardly relate to him. In this moment of grief, he vowed to bring change to his family and community.
Robert joined a village police programme to support community safety and be that positive voice for young men that crime doesn't pay.
Widows and grieving mothers are also part of the tragedy of the rhino tale. In Mangalane I met Ruth Rushava*, whose story indicates she could be 100 years old. Married as a child bride to affirm allegiance with a neighbouring village, Ruth bore nine children, but only three survived to the end of the Mozambican civil war in 1992.
Under political instability and with the smell of gunpowder still lingering in the air, Ruth's remaining sons knew no way of life without a gun in hand. At the rise of the poaching crisis, they saw no other way to support their widowed mother - and so they turned to the illegal trade in rhino horn.
Sitting outside enjoying the warm African breeze, her motherly sixth sense was numb to the possibility of them not returning home. But as the golden sunlight set one day, dusk came with the heartbreaking news that all of her sons had died. While some saw these as deaths in her honour, the risks ultimately resulted in the greater burden of living the end of her life without her children to take care of her. Ruth is effectively an old-age orphan.
Today, she is a voice of wisdom to the women in her village, urging them to rethink the presumed benefits against the costs of poaching. "Loneliness is too high a price to pay," she says.
World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) has joined hands with USAID in the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area, setting up an ambitious five-year programme called Khetha. Meaning "choice", Khetha aims to turn the problem on its head and to work with communities first.
Khetha recognises that communities are badly affected by wildlife trafficking through these kinds of human costs. Through partnerships, Khetha's aim is to reduce the effects on people and flagship species such as rhinos and elephants by addressing community attitudes and concerns as part of the response to wildlife trafficking.
Ambitious, you may say, but without offering that helping hand and without the help of people like Robert and Ruth our cause may well be lost.
* Not their real names.
• Nelisiwe Vundla is the community development and learning lead at WWF SA. Since 2015 she has been working with the Mangalane community in southern Mozambique in collaboration with the Sabie Game Park and the Southern African Wildlife College, with support from the UK Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund and WWF Nedbank Green Trust