A member of a cooperative of small-scale farmers, many of whom are former poachers, played a key role in the recent arrests by the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) of two wildlife traffickers attempting to trade ivory as part of a major syndicate involved in the illegal wildlife trade.
The farmer, a former poacher and now a Markets for Conservation (COMACO) lead farmer training other farmers to be food self-reliant, provided information on the movement of illegal wildlife by traffickers through the western side of the Luangwa Valley. The information was then communicated by COMACO staff to ZAWA who organized a sting operation resulting in two arrests and a trove of information that revealed details of a wildlife poaching syndicate operating out of Lusaka.
Following the arrests, authorities have learned the names of other traders in the syndicate who are allegedly selling wildlife contraband, particularly ivory and leopard skins, to Congolese and Chinese buyers.
Since 2003, COMACO, stewarded by WCS, has been working in Zambia to help poor farmers living around national parks improve their skills, grow surpluses, and receive above-market prices for their produce in exchange for meeting conservation targets. The program now has more than 109,000 members.
Said WCS's Dale Lewis, President and Founder of COMACO: "These recent arrests all started with the good will of one of our lead farmers. We are definitely seeing a trend in farmer willingness to help with law enforcement and I believe we are now finally beginning to show the real benefits of the COMACO model."
Another recent incident occurred on the eastern side of the Luangwa Valley where a police officer from Lusaka was implicated by COMACO farmers in the poaching of elephants in their area. The incident was reported to ZAWA and an arrest was made but no elephant ivory was found. The officer was cited for an unregistered firearm.
A province-wide radio program called COMACO Farm Talk encourages farmers to call the radio station when they see illegal activities. Information is then forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement agency. The call-ins average about 20-30 per month.
Said Lewis: "2015 will be an important year as we continue to work closely with ZAWA and the Forestry Department to build our conservation link with farmers through the type of market incentives and education COMACO provides. In the coming year, it is hoped that ZAWA will gazette some of our lead farmers and transformed poachers as Honorary Wildlife Officers (HWPO) and we will supply them all with cellphones. Once traders know we're watching, they may find opportunities limited and too risky."
ZAWA operates an informer network from bona fide community members, and the COMACO farmers would be an added advantage as already proved in these reported incidents.
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