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.
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.
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