Jimmy Mbewe spent six-and-a-half years in prison after he was caught illegally killing an elephant outside South Luangwa National Park here in eastern Zambia.
Poverty drove the father of nine to wander the bush evading wildlife scouts to shoot buffalo and elephant and sell the meat to local traders. "I'm not educated, so I chose my profession as hunting," he says.
Out of prison now, his movements are monitored by a local antipoaching team.
But Mr. Mbewe says he has no intention of going back behind bars. He's now busy learning carpentry skills with other former poachers under the Community Markets for Conservation program.
Mbewe is also learning to farm and work as a beekeeper. As long as he refrains from poaching, COMACO buys his honey at a price higher than the local market average, processes it, packages it, and sends it on to local markets.
The program goes beyond teaching former poachers new ways to earn a living; it is creating a sophisticated network of markets that makes money for locals while reducing poaching, improving land use, and supporting conservation.
"The challenge is you can't demand support for conservation if conservation is a cost," says Dale Lewis, an American conservationist who moved to Zambia 28 years ago as a college research assistant, and has spearheaded the project.
Why poaching continues
Demand for ivory in China and Japan has driven the worldwide illegal ivory trade to its highest level in two decades, a University of Washington study concluded in February, and Zambia appears to be a key source. In 2002, authorities seized 6.5 metric tons of ivory in Singapore, and the university's scientists used DNA testing to trace the source back to Zambia.
Poaching also has a local market. "Bush meat" is readily available in rural communities, and the use of cheap wire snares in some areas has been on the increase, says Rachel McRobb, head of the South Luangwa Conservation Society, an organization founded by safari operators and lodge owners who were concerned about the Zambian government's inability to stop poaching and decided to fund their own group of rangers. They now work under government auspices.
Earlier this year, Zambia's two remaining white rhinos, which were acquired from South Africa in 1993, were shot in a national park in the southern Zambian tourist town of Livingstone, even though they supposedly were under 24-hour surveillance. One died.
Cellphone technology has allowed poachers to become more sophisticated. Plus, Mr. Lewis notes, "[poachers] can't do it without the support of the local community."
In that context, promoting conservation means recognizing the reasons poachers hunt – and setting up a business model that gives local residents the opportunity to make a real, legal, living, says Lewis as he sits outside the program's local trading center. "We wanted to show farmers their commodities were worth a lot more than what they were getting."
The program, which has seen 40,000 snares and over 800 guns surrendered since its inception in 2001 and has won plaudits from the Zambian government, is sponsored by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, the folks who brought you the Bronx Zoo.
Several groups are working to change community attitudes toward illegal hunting in Zambia. One Zambian man, Hammer Simwinga, won the high-profile Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco in April for teaching alternative skills to would-be poachers in northern Zambia.
But the COMACO program is unique in the level of business sophistication it strives for.
If farmers agree not to poach and to adopt conservation-friendly methods, they gain "compliance bonuses" and access to the prices offered by COMACO, which normally exceed the local market rate. Extension officers show local villagers the benefits of farming organically, building high-yield log beehives, and growing multiple crops to avoid seasonal food shortages that might drive them to hunt or cut down trees to make charcoal.
Veronica Banda, a villager in Mfuwe, Zambia, who cares for 15 dependents, thought the COMACO officers were "mad people" when they asked her to abandon "slash and burn" farming, she said in a mixture of English and Nyanja, the local language. But now she's selling rice and peanuts to the program and was recently able to buy some goats with the profits, she said.
The program last year poured $250,000 into buying commodities from more than 40,000 farmers who are organized into more than 3,000 producer groups throughout eastern Zambia. Rice, honey, and peanut butter are taken from thirty-two local trading depots to three regional trading centers for processing.
The project has hired a new salesperson to navigate the marketing challenges of modern supermarkets. "We've got to make it healthy, high-quality, and presentable," Lewis says, sounding equal parts conservationist, businessman, and preacher as he explains the program's vision.
Alongside the expensive imports from Europe and South Africa, the honey section of Spar supermarket in the capital city of Lusaka also features orange and yellow plastic containers with the COMACO motto "It's Wild!" The program recently inked a deal to supply products to all of South African supermarket giant Shoprite's Zambia outlets.
The program has also built village-based safari bush camps to generate revenue.
The program is four years away from breaking even, Lewis projects, and still relies on funding from charitable organizations and donor governments.
But it has retrained over 350 poachers, at a cost of about $280 per person, Lewis says. By comparison, he says, finding and arresting a poacher costs the government's Wildlife Authority more than $2,000 on average.
It's a carrot-and-stick approach to reducing poaching that complements the government's enforcement efforts, says Whiteson Daka, the program's regional coordinator. "Poachers are really productive people, only they have no alternative way of earning a living," Daka noted, displaying a homemade muzzleloader surrendered by a poacher. "It is not an easy career."
Still, some staff members acknowledge that running a sustainable, efficient business while also persuading people to save wildlife and land is a constant challenge.
Ms. McRobb, of the South Luangwa Conservation Society, praises COMACO but has doubts about whether it will truly transform poachers or simply lead them to farm and poach simultaneously.
That's why Lewis and his colleagues are putting significant effort into documenting and analyzing their results, in hopes of persuading skeptics and attracting not only donor money, but investor capital. Airborne survey teams are assessing local wildlife impact, researchers from Cornell University are analyzing COMACO's data, and business consultants from the University of California at Berkeley are studying the business model.
In the end, however, local residents will decide whether the program is working.
Anderson Mbewe, another former poacher, says he's left that life behind. At least as long as COMACO stays around, that is. "If you don't have food," he notes, "so many things can come into the brain."