In our latest instalment, we spoke with Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award winner, Amos Gwema, to see how his work has developed since 2020.
Q: How has your work developed since winning the Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award?
My work has developed tremendously since I won the award, allowing me to achieve many positive things and making me a bit of a national hero!
My work has changed drastically – so many people and organisations want to be involved, with community members, schools, colleagues (and of course my superiors) expecting more positive contributions from me. My last blog talked about my project to raise awareness of conservation and wildlife crime through drama – the community, especially around Hwange National Park, want me and the drama club to visit them all. I have a tight schedule these days!
As well as setting up the drama club, the award allowed me to buy food and fuel, and pay salaries for team members. I also managed to print branded T-shirts with conservation messages for distribution amongst the community, and have done workshops with judiciary officers leading to appropriate sentencing for wildlife crimes.
Funding and budget constraints remain a challenge. Unfortunately, my resources don’t currently allow the drama club to cover the whole area, meaning some people end up disappointed.
But it’s good to see progress. I’ve seen villagers handing in live pangolins, reporting dead elephants – it shows they’re listening and actively contributing to conservation. We’ve now seen a second year running without any elephant poaching in Hwange National Park, made possible by the community acting as the first line of defence.
Q: At the time of award, you wrote in the independent that you had a vision for a programme to rehabilitate poachers. Tell us more about that – why is it needed and what could it look like?
Rehabilitation of ex-convicts is very important to prevent them from going back to committing wildlife crimes. From my own studies I have seen that offenders tend to specialise in certain crimes. To stop that, once arrested, offenders should be rehabilitated back into society to minimise the chances of them committing wildlife crimes again.
The minimum mandatory sentence in Zimbabwe for illegal possession of raw ivory is nine years. If someone spends nine years in custody, how will the person re-integrate back into society? They might find out that they have no home, their partner has re-married – their whole family broken down. At this very delicate stage, the offender may choose to commit crime and go back to prison rather than trying to start a new life from scratch. We have organisations which rehabilitate wildlife before release back into the wild – why not do the same with human beings?
Rehabilitation should help by supporting the released prisoner with a small income so that they can buy food, start small projects to survive and be accepted back into the community. Rehabilitation programmes also help to remove the burden on relatives of the offender. Relatives will more quickly accept the individual if they have something to bring back to the family.
Ex-offenders also represent an opportunity to teach the community, youths, school children etc. about the dangers of committing wildlife crime and the hardships encountered while in prison. They can be teachers accepted by the community that help to inculcate conservation messages and mindsets.
Such programmes have helped prevent communities being taken advantage of by town dwellers who tell them that wildlife products (e.g. ivory) pay, by showing there are no community members who have succeeded through trading in wildlife products. If such messages come from an ex-convict, the message is accepted and understood. Through my work, I currently have four ex-offenders involved in my poetry and drama club.
Q: How has Covid-19 impacted community engagement with conservation?
Travel and gathering restrictions have been imposed by the government in an effort to reduce and prevent the spread of the Covid-19. For some time, there was no gathering permitted. This had a serious impact on community outreach programmes.
The community were suspicious that people from urban areas would spread Covid-19 in the community such that they initially shunned engagements with my team. Grants from Tusk contributed to our efforts to prevent the spread of the pandemic. After a while, and after I started to buy some face masks to distribute to the community, the situation improved and they were more receptive.
Q: You used some of your award funding to plan a wildlife drama to create greater awareness of conservation. How is that going? What has the response to this project been like?
The wildlife drama and poetry work has been very well received by the community. The composition of the drama and poetry team involves ex-convicts, youths, university students and family members, hence the project has been accepted and the community is very happy.
The community now appreciates the importance of wildlife conservation, leading to a rise in the number of people handing in wildlife products to the authorities. In 2021, there were six live pangolins handed to the authorities and four dead elephants with ivory intact reported, showing the acceptance of the programme.
The long term aim is to have the programme cover the whole country and be played on national radio and TV so that a large audiences can be reached.
My wish is to have programme reach everywhere where there is wildlife and the poetry or plays to be performed in local languages of the community for the message to be easily understood.
Q: We are publishing this piece on World Pangolin Day. What threats currently face the pangolin and why is its protection so important?
The pangolin is threatened with extinction and there is need for serious efforts to fight for its protection. In a situation where 7000 tonnes of pangolin scales are recovered, this means that not less than 20,000 pangolins were killed. If such crimes are left unchecked the animal will disappear.
Pangolins are harmless to humans and can be easily captured without firearms or force. Previously, they would be captured by community members who gave them to wildlife cartels shipping the scales out of the country.
This is why my drama and poetry club includes two ex-convicts arrested for illegal possession of pangolin scales. They give good lessons to the community that pangolin trafficking does not pay. This has resulted in the handing in of pangolins picked from the bush. If we do not seriously educate the community, the pangolin is surely threatened with extinction.