For more than two decades, Steward Siapalala was known for poaching wild animals in the Kafue National Park, one of Zambia’s embattled reserves and the fifth largest National Park in the world.
“I had a killer instinct… I could shoot down a buffalo with just one bullet,” he says, pointing at a mock target with an imaginary rifle.
Farming had been Siapalala’s main livelihood, but poor yields due to unsustainable agricultural practices and climate change pushed him into poaching.
Like many others in Zambia, the 50 years-old wasn’t growing enough food to sustain his wife and 9 children and was not only poaching to supplement their diets, but also charcoal burning for cash.
But today, all of that is changing thanks to a UNDP-supported project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which began teaching local rural communities sustainable agricultural practices locally known in the Ila language as “Bulimi bukalilila butanyonyauni zhilengwa leza” — the farming system which does not destroy nature.
The project’s support for innovations in farming techniques has resulted in hundreds of poachers putting down their weapons and supporting efforts to protect endangered species. The scheme is also addressing rural poverty and creating sustainable opportunities in a bid to tackle wildlife poaching and trafficking at higher level.
After being trained in conservation farming, Steward Siapalala and his family decided to try it. They divided their land into two equal plots, and used conservation farming techniques on one plot and conventional farming practices on the other. Despite initial skepticism, the results erased all doubts: The conservation plot produced twice as much yield.
“I realized that I was harming my environment by hunting animals and destroying their habitat. Conservation farming is a better way of life than poaching,” Siapala admits.
“Many small-scale farmers are now getting hooked to this new farming technique,” said Evans Simengolwa, Field Officer for Conservation Farming Unit Zambia, a local Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) working in tandem with the project.
Farmers have been able to boost their harvests, which has attracted more farmers and created more jobs, Simengolwa adds.
The new farming techniques have also been promoted on a community radio station programme that encourages farmers to reduce their impact on nature by using environment and wildlife-friendly farming methods.
Siapalala is also actively involved with awareness raising activities of his Village Action Group(VAGs), a community-based structure helping and working to conserve natural resources.
As one of the 500 former poachers working with the project, Siapalala is part of an exciting new trend in Zambian conservation — working with rural communities to collectively manage natural assets as a shared resource and responsibility.
These reformed poachers are tasked with identifying poachers in their districts, convincing them to abandon poaching in favour of conservation farming and other environmentally-friendly activities, ranging from beekeeping to the regeneration of community forests and fish farming.
The impact of the project, especially the former poachers’ successes in conservation farming have encouraged a growing number of their neighbours to follow suit, resulting in improved community food security and ultimately a reduction in poaching.
“Poaching is showing a sign of decline on this side of the park owing to a sense of individual and collective community action towards wildlife and environmental stewardship,” said Elliot Kasempa, Warden at the Ngoma Area Management Unit covering the Kafue National Park.
Tthe project also sought buy-in from traditional leaders to gain the trust of poachers and villagers alike.
“Their traditional attitudes toward the National Park are shifting, as communities are becoming increasingly aware of new benefits from protecting wildlife and their habitats,” said Chieftainess Kabulwebulwe who called for strong community action against illegal hunting and announced a total ban on charcoal production in her chiefdom.
Photo credits: Wildlife photos, Kafue National Park/Itezhitezhi District
Text and photos of former poachers and conservation farmers: Moses Zangar, Jr./UNDP Zambia