Farm worker Bon Mvula holds up the valuable horns of a poached Zambian sable. Remnants of eight species were found in a poachers’ bush camp on the boundary of the farm. Zambia, 2015. (Benjamin Rutherford)
When Synody Mulibehzi woke up June 27, 2012, he had two good arms. By nightfall, he would have just one.
Back then, Mulibehzi and his brother were employed on an anti-poaching team on a conservancy in Zambia, according to accounts made to photographer Benjamin Rutherford. Such teams are employed on game reserves, conservancies and farms, to protect animals from being poached and sold as bushmeat. On that day, Mulibehzi and seven others responded to a report of an early morning gunshot on the conservancy that he regularly patrolled. Armed only with a big stick, Mulibehzi charged headlong into the thick bush.
Sometimes these anti-poaching patrols catch up with the rustlers; sometimes they’re too far behind. But this time it was the former, and in a flash Mulibehzi found himself staring at a homemade shotgun at close range. A plume of smoke filled his eyes. He commanded his hand to wipe it away, but it lay limp.
Mulibehzi spent two weeks in stable condition at a hospital, Rutherford says, and a month later went back to work (on his own insistence; the farm manager wanted him to take it easy). With a stump left in place of his arm, he was tasked with looking after cattle. He was unable to shake the traumatic experience, though, and he left. But still Rutherford says he is one of the lucky ones.
Since 2014, Rutherford has been documenting the threat posed by the bushmeat trade, or the illegal hunting of wild animals for consumption, for his photo essay, “Nyama.” In this trade, poachers commonly use snares made of wire or guns to capture the animals. The snares are indiscriminate and can trap “bycatch,” or animals that are not the intended targets, including cheetahs, leopards and lions. This can lead to maiming or tremendous waste when the animals die in the traps and are never collected.
Game guards patrol along the Kafue River, which borders the reserve they protect. The reserve once experienced poaching on a massive scale. Now it is one of the few success stories, thanks to these legally armed anti-poaching patrols. But it comes at a huge financial cost. Zambia, 2015. (Benjamin Rutherford) A large male impala stands in a transport box. The animal is destined for a game reserve for legal trophy hunting. Zambia. 2015. (Benjamin Rutherford) Two impalas attempt to escape during a capture operation. The animals are to be sold to help fund the reserve. With a large variety of wildlife and about 90.000 square miles of land, the wildlife industry has huge potential in Zambia to create jobs. However, the industry is not well developed, because of poaching, a weak legal framework and lack of investment. The South African Private Wildlife Industry, which is similar in size to Zambia’s national parks, is worth an estimated $795.5 million, which comes mostly from legal hunting, whereas Zambia’s industry is only worth $16 million. (Benjamin Rutherford) An anti-poaching team reacts to a report of a gunshot on the reserve. Because of the delay in information and the thickness of the bush, the team rarely comes into contact with poachers. Most often, the poachers will quickly carry the animal to a nearby road and meet a waiting taxi that takes them back into town. (Benjamin Rutherford) Two poachers are apprehended after an ambush. The men said they were motivated by money and make a good living as poachers. Zambia, 2014. (Benjamin Rutherford) Synody Mulibehzi lost his arm and very nearly his life during an anti-poaching operation. It is suspected that he has PTSD from the incident; he was unable to continue working on the same property. He now lives and works in a nearby town running a small shop. Zambia, 2014. (Benjamin Rutherford) A farm manager inspects the carcass of a poached trophy kudu bull. Many game farms also run cattle on the land. Wildlife is not the only target in game farm areas. The farm lost 40 heads of cattle in the previous six months to poachers who the manager suspects are from a nearby town. Zambia, 2015. (Benjamin Rutherford) A bushfire rips through dry grass. Bushfires are deliberately set by poachers to drive out wildlife and clear thick bush to enable nighttime hunting with a spotlight. Zambia, 2015. (Benjamin Rutherford) An old bushbuck female attempts to hide in the long winter grass. Older animals are an easy target for bushmeat poachers and their hunting dogs. (Benjamin Rutherford) Members of a wildlife team hide in the long grass during a wildlife capture operation. They aim to capture every animal in the small reserve for live sale. The owner decided to close the reserve because the area was being hit too hard by poaching and planned to cultivate wheat on the land instead. 2014. (Benjamin Rutherford)
The bushmeat problem often gets overshadowed by dialogue about protecting megafauna like elephants, rhinos and lions. But, in fact, it runs rampant in Zambia and is severely depleting wildlife. According to a 2012 report by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Zoological Society of London and Panthera, it has overtaken trophy poaching as the top reason for the decline in wildlife in Zambia.
Zambia has a low degree of food security across the country, and food production fluctuates yearly because of weather conditions and a poor agriculture infrastructure. Plus, purchasing meat can be prohibitively expensive. So in Zambia, Rutherford said, bushmeat is often a middle-class indulgence. People sometimes seek it out instead of chicken, pork or beef because of the fear of additives or preservatives.
It seems that as long as there is demand and a lack of repercussions, the practice will continue. One night, Rutherford was at a farm where he witnessed the apprehension of two poachers. One had been caught multiple times for poaching fish. The other said he was trying to make money to repay his uncle, who he had stolen money from. The men were let off after about six days in jail because of a lack of evidence, despite being caught on private property on the dam with a fishing net.
The entire industry is not sustainable, experts say, and could result in huge ecosystem imbalances. Additionally, it is preventing the wildlife of the country from being fully leveraged and feeding tourism. A strong tourism industry, in turn, could create a framework for employment — an alternative, legal source of income to replace bushmeat poaching.
In the meantime, Rutherford says he hopes that his photo story will spread awareness about the threat to this national treasure and valuable resource. And he hopes to expand the project to other African countries such as Kenya and Malawi, where bushmeat poaching is also a problem.
A young man holds up the head and skin of a baboon that was shot for stealing maize. Very few people eat primates in this part of the country because of taboos, religion and fear of Ebola. But some still do out of a hunger for protein. Zambia, 2015. (Benjamin Rutherford) A farm worker skins a baboon that was killed for raiding the village maize crop. Meat is expensive, and wildlife represents a free source of protein for some. (Benjamin Rutherford) Men carry the hind legs of a waterbuck antelope to the farm butchery to be cut into cubes and packaged in two-pound bags. It will be sold to the public for $4.50 a bag. (Benjamin Rutherford) A cattleman holds down a calf while it is being branded and earmarked. Cattle is a huge industry across Africa, so stealing a cow can carry a harsh prison sentence. On the other hand, the sentence for poaching an antelope is often a few weeks at most. (Benjamin Rutherford)
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