Journey to Jika Jika Tavern-Part 2

Journey to Jika Jika Tavern-Part 2

What makes you angry?

In my first article related to my upcoming novel, Down at Jika Jika Tavern, I ended off by saying that I would share some of the research, and introduce you to people doing phenomenal work in the field of conservation (both academic and field).

Today, I’d like to introduce you to Catherine Jakins, who completed her Criminology Masters at UKZN in 2019.

Her research, The Modus Operandi of Rhino Poachers in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa,  explored the drivers of poaching in KZN, and gave insight into the socio-economic realities poachers face, as well as the difficulty in accessing poachers to hear their side of the story. Amongst other things, Cath works as a campaign coordinator for Blood Lions, a non-profit focused on ending the plight of lions bred in captivity.

Why criminology?

I’ve always had this (morbid) fascination with crime and criminals. As a teenager, I was obsessed with crime drama books and TV shows like CSI, Law & Order, and Bones. I really enjoyed my first criminology module during the first year of my BA degree but didn’t quite cut it on the psychology front. I decided at some point that I didn’t have the right personality to be a lawyer, so thought that investigative journalism would be my niche. After failing to get into journalism post-graduate courses, my dad eventually convinced me to apply for my honours in criminology, which was the beginning of my very interesting journey.

Why environmental crime, and in particular, rhino poaching?

During my honours, I had to complete a research project in the form of a mini dissertation. During one of the first research lectures, the lecturer told us to choose a topic that we were passionate about; something that made us angry. It was a Monday morning and I had read an article that weekend that shook me to my core: four rhino had been poached in a nearby game reserve in one night. When the lecturer looked around the room, pointed at me, and asked, “What makes you angry?”, my first response was “rhino poaching”.

He stood there for a while staring at me, and I thought I had said something wrong. Later I learned that he was so taken aback by my answer and the relatively new idea of looking at rhino poaching from a criminological perspective, that he volunteered to be my supervisor for both my honours and master’s degrees.

How easy was it to gain access to convicted poachers?

Not easy at all! To locate rhino poaching offenders in the correctional system, I was required to provide the individuals’ names, the courts in which they were sentenced, and the correctional centre in which they were being held – none of this information is public knowledge. What made this process all the more difficult, was that rhino poachers often fall between the cracks, as they don’t fall into any particular crime category (such as robbery or homicide), and are instead arrested for a variety of crimes, ranging from trespassing to illegal possession of a weapon. I realised quite early on that it would have been much easier to research something like tax fraud or robbery.

Due to the sensitivity of the issue in KZN at the time (2016-2017), and the lack of a specific crime category for rhino poachers, my applications for access to records from the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the Department of Corrections (DCS), and the South African Police Service (SAPS) were consistently denied or transferred to other departments.

After many frustrating months of what I now call “admin ping-pong”, I came across a news article that had published the names of poachers who had recently been convicted and sentenced to prison in KZN. I contacted the DCS with the information and they put me in contact with the relevant Head of Centre, who was amazingly helpful! A real breath of fresh air after nearly two years of back and forth to get the information I needed.

I travelled with a colleague, a translator, to three prisons to conduct the interviews. During each interview, we asked the interviewees if they knew of any other inmates who had been convicted of crimes associated with rhino poaching. It was at the last prison that we managed to locate two additional inmates who, thankfully, agreed to be interviewed.

My proposed sample size of 12 rhino poachers fell dismally short with only five full interviews (one individual refused), with little or no prospect of locating more offenders in the correctional system. At that point, I had to go back to the drawing board, if I was going to finish my masters with a solid dissertation. I decided to deviate from my original research plan and interview experts in the anti-rhino poaching and conservation fields.

Findings – who is involved?

The poacher

Individuals living in poverty in KZN are often recruited for poaching operations by organised criminal syndicates operating outside of the province. Poaching gangs in KZN enter protected areas either over the boundary fence or through it. They track the rhino on foot using bush tracking knowledge that many local people grew up with and kill the rhino using high-calibre hunting rifles. They then use hunting knives or axes to remove the horn.

My literature study suggested that the methods of KZN poachers would be somewhat less sophisticated than those found in Mpumalanga/Kruger, although I didn’t find any hard evidence to confirm this. I did learn that many of the poaching gangs operating in KZN work for, or are recruited by, the more sophisticated syndicates based in other provinces.

There was great reluctance by poachers to admit their involvement in, or knowledge of, poaching. Only one admitted that he had been involved but denied being recruited by a syndicate. Another stated that he was, “just looking for his cows,” and had been wrongfully accused.

Poverty is a driver of poaching, and more than one expert mentioned that the local South African syndicates with international ties are targeting and recruiting impoverished young men. The level of poverty in KZN (northern KZN specifically) is very high, and individuals are enticed by the lure of wealth.

It’s easy to create a mental image of ‘a poacher’ and assume that all are the same. I was surprised when a man was seated in front of us who was well-kept, quietly spoken and polite. Prior to his arrest, he had lost his ‘respectable’ job, and unable to find another, became involved in the poaching scheme that landed him in prison. At the end of our interview, he asked the following of my research:

“Will this work [indicates to the notes that I was taking] do anything to help people like me get jobs after prison so that we can live again?”

He seemed so earnest and had stated earlier that he deeply regretted his involvement in the poaching. To be sure, I asked if he regretted the killing of the rhino, or regretted being caught, to which he answered that he felt bad for the rhino because he knew it was wrong and he didn’t think it should have died for him and his ‘friends’ to benefit.

The traditional healer

Unexpectedly for me, the involvement of traditional healers in the rhino poaching world emerged during my research. I had no idea that they played such a pivotal role in the preparation process for poachers, but the conservation experts confirmed that they knew of poachers who had visited izangoma before embarking on their rhino poaching expeditions.

The offender who admitted to being involved in poaching confirmed this narrative. When I asked, “how do you become a poacher?”, he answered that one must “to go to isangoma first, so you are protected.”

He believed that he was bullet proof because of the muthi (medicine) the isangoma had given him before he and his co-accused entered the park. He was shot multiple times in the ensuing chase by authorities and strongly believes that he survived that day because of the traditional healer’s anointment.

All of the conservation experts I interviewed agreed that izangoma play a significant role and should be held accountable if they are found to have ‘advised’ a would-be poacher.

The communities around the reserves

One of the conservation experts strongly believes that the communities surrounding reserves are often just sources of knowledge for poaching syndicates, rather than being directly involved in the poaching. Another expert also said that a positive relationship with surrounding communities is key: “We do a lot of work the communities and there’s a lot of community development and goodwill and a positive perception of the reserve, which helps a lot”.

Author’s notes

Meeting Cath was incredibly helpful for my research. By this point I had read so many newspaper articles, research articles, and anything I could get my hands on, but none of it specifically addressed poachers in KZN. Unlike Cath who was conducting research under the umbrella of a university, a newbie author, with no links or affiliations to any established body, was not going to see the inside of a prison, or gain access to poachers, so I appreciate her sharing her insight and experiences.

To read Catherine’s master’s dissertation, click here.

Further reading:

Annette Hübschle (2016), A Game of Horns. Transnational Flows of Rhino Horn. Available on Research Gate