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Networking and Collaboration: What We Can Learn from Zimbabwe’s Anti-Poaching Movement

Image credit: Aftab Uzzaman

It’s never been more important to bring the poaching and wildlife conservation story to life, while also bringing together local and international stakeholders to build sustainable solutions to what has become a global issue.

Recent developments, such as the US lifting bans on certain elephant trophy imports and changes to the Mugabe government in Zimbabwe, add to the intrigue of what is already a fascinating place.

My time in Zimbabwe this past year was eye-opening. Poaching is complex, and what I've learned from being on the ground is that the issues involved are misunderstood; the media's focus on weapon-wielding, Asian poaching cartels seeking elephant ivory and rhino horns is only a piece of the puzzle. Around 80 percent of all poaching is committed by impoverished local people. In some cases, these people can't afford to feed their families and so, in desperation, turn to setting snares for bush meat. Others are opportunists, looking for quick and easy ways to make money.

Poverty is a reality in Zimbabwe and throughout all of Africa. Historically, communities in Africa living close to wildlife would hunt their food — just as many people have done (and still do) throughout the world. Today, due to dwindling wildlife populations and the implementation of no-take reserves, this kind of hunting is neither realistic nor legal in most places. However, the bushmeat trade is still a major economic factor in many African countries. On the black market, prices are astonishingly low — think $50 USD for an entire giraffe.

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Although we sometimes feel that we live in our respective bubbles, we are all connected to our most distant neighbors, and there’s never been a more important time to work together to create a thriving worldwide community that fights to end poaching.

While poaching’s most acute damage is felt at the local and country level, the impacts of illegally killing animals are far-reaching and have potential implications that are on par with other issues, such as climate change and pollution. The three, in fact, are interconnected and represent a dire threat to our quality of life and the future of the planet.

As scientists have observed for hundreds of years — and businesses are quickly learning — diversity keeps ecosystems (and organizations) functioning. In the natural environment, the loss or significant reduction of an iconic species has deep and broad implications.

Understanding how systems change with the introduction or removal of something of significance is critical not only to anti-poaching efforts, but to how the organizations that are combating this problem organize themselves. After all, we’ve seen repeatedly that ecosystems can quickly recover and thrive when effective collaboration, policy and execution of programs restores diversity and balance, the very thing that poaching threatens most.

At SoulBuffalo, our corporate clients have shared that their experiences in Zimbabwe have helped them view their organizations as holistic ecosystems and radically advanced their thinking on diversity, both in nature and at the corporate level.

What we can learn from Zimbabwe’s anti-poaching movement

The story of poaching and the various communities, NGOs, businesses and government agencies involved in mitigating its effects on local communities, regional biodiversity and indeed the broader global ecosystem offers a unique perspective into the importance of and increased need for collaboration amongst key stakeholders. In the case of anti-poaching, the participating organizations differ in size, method and technological focus, from drone pilots monitoring watering holes to some of the largest international conservation organizations on the planet. These groups have important missions and employ some of the most dedicated conservationists on the planet, but they often compete for the same funds, and in some cases, the mission of an organization supporting one species ends up being in direct conflict with the mission of another.

Underpinning all of these other operations is, of course, the management agency of Hwange National Park itself. This team is faced with the extraordinary challenge of protecting animals — many of which are extremely difficult to track, count and monitor — across over 5,500 square miles of savannah, scrub and thick forest. Not an easy task by any measure.

Navigating complexity and the search for purpose

Surveying anti-poaching efforts at large in Africa, it seems that some things are working well, while others aren't. It also depends where you are on the continent. Hwange National Park, home to Cecil the Lion, serves as an excellent ground zero to deep-dive into the complexity of the problem. The organizational agility and adaptability necessary to combat poaching can't be overstated. Whenever we run programs in Zimbabwe, we are humbled by the level of commitment and positive intention, and there are many lessons that can be learned by what's working — and what's not.

During our most recent program, we had leaders on the ground — park management officials, NGO directors and a local village chief — engage with our corporate participants. Many of these conversations took place as intimate and animated fireside chats under the stars. Through our programs, we’ve been able to bring together a lot of important people who live in close proximity to each other. Some are grizzled veterans of the park who have been there for over 20 years but barely speak to each other. Our programming has put them in dialogue; there’ve been more conversations this year than in the last 10.

As we continue to run programs there, we're hopeful that the stakeholders on the ground will continue to improve upon their ability — and desire — to collaborate with one another. We look forward to going back.


Dave Ford is the CEO of SoulBuffalo, a company that runs expeditions for leaders that bond teams and inspire innovation around the world. 

[Read more about Dave Ford]