Adam Welz's Weblog

Commentary on Nina Burleigh’s Newsweek article on “race war” centered on rhinos in South Africa

Posted in Uncategorized by adamwelz on August 14, 2017

On the 8th of August 2017 Newsweek magazine published an explosive feature article (link: http://www.newsweek.com/2017/08/18/trophy-hunting-poachers-rhinos-south-africa-647410.html ) by their U.S.-based National Politics Correspondent, Nina Burleigh, outlining what she calls an “increasingly bloody race war” in South Africa centered on rhinos. The article quotes sources saying that “thousands” of people have been killed by what Burleigh calls “battalions of mercenaries” acting on behalf of wildlife conservationists. Burleigh says these “mercenaries” are “nearly all white” and they are “hunting” poachers who she claims are “nearly all black”. Numerous other incendiary claims are made in the piece, which portrays South African wildlife ranchers as land thieves and conservationists as often being murderous white racists who value the lives of rhinos over those of black people.

Burleigh’s article is however riddled with basic factual errors and stuffed with hearsay. It’s misleading, inflammatory and unprofessional. It’s so poor that it calls her credibility as a journalist into question.

According to her website, Burleigh is an established, high-profile journalist and book author who holds an adjunct professorship at the respected Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York. Given her status and the international standing of Newsweek, the story will likely gain a large global audience.

I am a born-and-bred South African independent journalist/photographer/filmmaker and occasional wildlife conservationist. I have degrees in zoology, postgraduate experience studying economics, and I’ve been interested and engaged in wildlife conservation, human rights and civil liberties issues since my early teenage years. I’ve spent many years of my adult life working outside my country of birth, including several in the USA. I am currently based in South Africa.

As Africans we are accustomed to being misrepresented by foreign journalists, who can be arrogant, ignorant and in thrall of their own strange ideas about “The Dark Continent”. (We encounter diligent, professional ones too sometimes.) We’re intimately familiar with so-called “parachute journalists”, outsiders who drop into the middle of complex issues for a short time and then depart to create sensationalist stories that seem to be based more on the writer’s and their audience’s prejudices and fantasies than facts, stories they would never dare to write about their home country.

I contend that Burleigh’s article is a particularly egregious example of parachute journalism. It’s nothing short of an insult to those journalists who take their profession seriously. It provides almost no credible evidence to back its central claims. The web version contains no hyperlinked references. The conclusions it arrives at are so obtuse and inflammatory, I believe, that the article runs a real risk of causing serious harm to both people and wildlife. I don’t think it should be published in a respected international publication, even one like Newsweek whose star has waned in recent years.

Readers should note that I have created this commentary of my own free will and without pay. I don’t know Burleigh, did not know of her before I read this piece and have no interest in her personal life, but I think it would be productive if she addressed my points and questions one-by-one in response to this commentary.

Readers should understand that this critique was rapidly drafted in between paying work and childcare duties. My commentary has not been edited. It contains typos and inelegant prose, maybe even a small number of errors and it is not fully referenced. It is a draft, a starting point for deeper inquiry, a work-in-progress, and is put up on this site to be corrected and refined. If you have something useful to add, please add it in the comments. Please don’t waste everyone’s time with hearsay and chatter. (If anyone – Newsweek perhaps? – wants a carefully written, fully referenced version of this critique they’re going to have to pay me a professional fee to make it!)

Doing journalism means making mistakes, as with other human activities. As I’ve written above, I feel that Burleigh’s piece is so abnormally saturated with basic errors that it should be immediately retracted and its contents scrutinized by Newsweek’s editors and respected third parties. The article is in my view so extraordinarily poor that it calls into question Burleigh’s past work: If she plays so fast and loose with so many facts in a life-or-death story like this, what other ‘facts’ has she used to ‘improve’ her stories in the past? They should be looked-into, too. I am aware of the implications of this for her employment at Newsweek and her position at Columbia are obvious; journalists have lost careers over less. I bear no animus towards her. I’m concerned with preventing harm to people and wildlife and in strengthening wildlife conservation journalism, a field which is unfortunately heavily populated by writers whose expertise lies elsewhere and who trivialize the knowledge required to do justice to this complex sphere of human endeavor.

A NOTE ON FORMAT: I have cut and pasted the entire text of the article from the Newsweek website as I found it on 9 August 2017 between ***. It is reproduced as plain text below. I have inserted [my in-line comments inside square brackets in blue text.] I have bold underlined some of Burleigh’s words; these are dealt with in my extended commentary below Burleigh’s article.

Before we proceed, an apology: The old saying that debunking bullshit takes far more time and words than producing and spreading it is true in this case. This commentary is long! If you’re short on time, skip beyond the second *** and read the extended commentary.

***

KRUGER PARK, SOUTH AFRICA: WHERE BLACK POACHERS ARE HUNTED AS MUCH AS THEIR PREY

BY NINA BURLEIGH ON 8/8/17 AT 9:44 AM

Scene 1: Dawn, a private lodge in South Africa [When? Year? Date? Why is the lodge not named?] 

Ten guys from New York’s Long Island, expensively armed and outfitted, head out into the bush to hunt the king of beasts. Over nine days, 10 captive-bred and drugged lions are transported to a private reserve and then released to stumble [really? Or walk? Little inaccuracies like this can be a sign of journo laziness] around in habitat they’ve never seen before.

The hunters head out in jeeps, then climb trees, [the hunters climb trees? I’ve never heard of a canned lion hunter climbing a tree to shoot his/her target. I suppose it might happen, but my understanding is that they usually drive around & shoot off a vehicle or walk a short distance to shoot. Journo seems to have confused hunter with animal – see comment at the end of this section.] so they can aim down with high-powered automatic weapons [automatic weapons, as in what most people call machine guns? Really? I have never credibly heard of a canned lion hunt with machine guns. Single-shot hunting rifles are typical. Journo seems to not know the difference between automatic, semi-automatic and single-shot guns, which is also a bad sign this early in the story, although “automatic weapons” does sound a lot sexier than “single-shot hunting rifle.” See comment at the end of section.] at the disoriented animals. Terrified by the flying bullets, the lions—still doped-up [how does reporter know they’re still doped up?] and accustomed to being fed by humans since birth—panic. They cower against fences or squeeze into warthog burrows, but there really is no place to hide. Soon, each of these white Americans will have a trophy lion head to bring back to the USA. And the worst injuries they will have suffered for their efforts are sunburn and a hangover. [How does the journo know that none of them suffered more-serious injuries during their hunt? Or is this pure assumption?]

[Comment on “Scene 1”:

First, did the journo witness this ‘scene’ first-hand or not? She doesn’t name the lodge – why not? Is the journo protecting a vulnerable source who would be exposed to harm if the location and date were revealed? If so, why is she protecting the source? Perhaps the journo doesn’t know where or when this is, or is making this scene up. 

Second: Scene seems to be derived from a video of a so-called ‘canned’ lion hunt that was featured on well-known South African TV show Carte Blanche (a rough equivalent of CBS 60 Minutes) in 2016. The location of the hunt and identities of all the hunters have long been revealed publicly. Some scenes from the film along with testimony by the cameraman and other details can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUxt577V8m8 I have seen a full-length version of this hunt film – although I no longer have easy access to it – and I don’t remember any scene where a hunter climbed a tree to shoot, although there was one instance where a lioness was shot while she was up a tree. I also don’t remember seeing any automatic weapons used; conventional single-shot hunting rifles were. Many of the lions shot seemed very tame but I have no evidence that they were drugged when shot and do not recall any of them actually stumbling around prior to being shot. I have no idea why the journo and her editors decided not to be up-front and clear about these details; perhaps to insinuate that she had exclusive access to this event? This – in my view – damages the credibility of the story, her credibility, and the credibility of Newsweek.]

Scene 2: Moonlit night, outside Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest public game reserve [Where? When? Why not clarified?]

Two black men [two? Not three? It’s common for rhino poachers in the Kruger Park to move in groups of three; tracker, shooter & assistant] slink through tall buffalo grass on the trail of a rhino. One shoots, the massive beast falls, and the shooter’s partner rapidly slices off its horn. The two men then flee on foot, leaving behind a grotesquely mutilated but possibly still living rhino. That horn will net enough money to buy a car and TV, as well as send their children to high school. [How much money are we talking here? Why no number? Will the proceeds of the horn really buy the men all this?] And so they run, racing through grasslands where hippos and elephants frequently kill [Frequently? As in how frequently? My impression is that an elephant or hippo kills one of the millions of people who work/live in/near the Kruger Park about once a year. I learn of these incidents via media reports, which I read many of, wildlife issues being one of my areas of focus.] foraging humans, [foraging for what? Who ‘forages’ in the Kruger Park and surrounding private and provincial reserves? The word ‘forage’ conjures up images of hipster locavore Americans or – with ‘interesting’ implications — “native hunter-gatherer” people; neither of these types of people commonly look for food in and around the Kruger National Park. My further impression is that the people who get killed are doing all sorts of different things like being a Kruger Park employee or looking for lost cattle; I couldn’t (via a quick websearch) find a single account of a ‘foraging’ person being killed by these animals in recent times or remember one.] as lion and leopard prowl behind rocks. Their goal: getting over one of the great fences that delineate public and private land [which fences are we talking about here? The fences around the Kruger area primarily delineate conservation and non-conservation land, not public and private land. The fences between the Kruger Park ( = government-owned conservation area) and many adjacent private conservation areas around it were in fact removed years ago to allow animals to roam freely] before white mercenary soldiers with night-vision goggles hunt them down and kill them. [I’ll deal with journo’s use of the term ‘mercenary’ at the end of the article.]

[Comment on Scene 2: It’s unclear if this scene was directly observed by the reporter, is constructed from another party’s account, or is an apocryphal story/amalgam to illustrate a ’typical’ poaching scene. It may be the product of the reporter’s imagination rather than anyone’s direct observation. Who knows? As with Scene 1, in my view that this calls the credibility of the story, the journo, her editors and her publication into question.]

$3,000 per pound

The billboards start appearing miles from Kruger park: [at this point I feel compelled to note the small point that South Africans say “the” Kruger Park. You mark yourself as a an inexperienced foreigner by saying “Kruger Park” sans the preceding “the”.] “Poachers will be poached.” For illiterate poachers, another sign announces, “Dehorned zone,” with a picture of a living rhino without its horn. (Some private game owners remove rhino horns to deter poaching.) [FYI some government reserves, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, dehorn their animals too.]

The iconic Big Five animals trophy hunters covet are lion, rhino, elephant, Cape buffalo and leopard, but it is the endangered rhino [“the” endangered rhino? There are two – very different – species of rhino in South Africa. The main target of poachers is the White or Square-lipped Rhino, but it is not classified Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (in fact it is not classified in any of the “threatened” categories). The Black or Hook-lipped Rhino – which is less abundant than the White Rhino and poached far less often (it also has a smaller horn) is classified as Critically Endangered on the Red List. It’s unclear why the journo has conflated/confused these animals; ignorance? Laziness? Either way, not a good sign] that has become a potent symbol for the ugly inequality between whites and blacks in post-apartheid South Africa. [I’ll deal with this point in my extended commentary at the end of the article.] [Further note: If “the endangered rhino” is indeed central to this story, why does Scene 1 describe a lion hunt? Southern White Rhinos are legally hunted in South Africa. Just sayin’.]

The rhinoceros’s bloodlines stretch back to a giant relative that roamed lush grasslands 30 million years ago. [I’m guessing journo is referring to Paraceratherium, in which case “lush grasslands” is probably incorrect. I can find info stating that paleontologists think it was found in a range of habitats from near-deserts to deciduous woodlands and temperate & subtropical forests. I can find no mention of Paraceratherium occurring in “lush” (as in, well-watered) “grasslands”. Also, rhinos “bloodlines”, like human bloodlines, arguably stretch back to the origin of life itself.] “It is a miracle that this prehistoric idiot still exists,” wrote T. Murray Smith, former president of the East Africa Professional Hunters Association. For thousands of years, the primeval beast’s descendants roamed the grasslands of Asia and Africa by the millions, [When were there last “millions”, as in more than two million, rhinos on Earth? Please cite credible sources.] but now fewer than 20,000 of them roam free [Where does she get this number from? I stand to be corrected, but my rough reckoning is that there are probably a shade more than 20,000 Southern White Rhino still in existence. Add 5,000 or so Black Rhino and 2,700+ Indian Rhino and we’re closer to 30,000 than 20,000 rhinos (of all species) globally.] South Africa is home to 79 percent of the world’s rhinos, and half of them live in Kruger park. [Source for numbers? Also what’s the point in collapsing all rhino species into one number? If we lose Sumatran or Javan Rhino to extinction this will be a massive loss, not reflected in this number] Rhino numbers there and worldwide have been plummeting since Asian demand for their horns exploded about 10 years ago, [My info is that, despite large-scale poaching, rhino numbers (as in all species counted together) have NOT been “plummeting” in the last 10 years. More rhinos have been born than have been lost to natural deaths + poaching for most of those ten years, both within Kruger and in the world as a whole. It seems likely that there may have very recently – within the last 2 years or so – been a small decrease in the South African population of rhinos (Black + White rhino counted together) due to poaching.] after a Vietnamese general declared that powdered rhino horn had cured his cancer. [Who is this general and where is the evidence that he actually declared that rhino horn cured his cancer?] Rhino horn sells for $3,000 a pound, [to who does it sell for this amount? To the local kingpin who buys it from the shooter? To the transporter who takes it to Asia? To the end-user? This number is nonsense without citing a source for the amount and the context of a sale.] which can turn poachers into kings in villages without running water or electricity. [Kings? Like as in ‘tribal rulers’? Journo could have found a more accurate word.]

South Africa’s apartheid ended in the 1990s, but black leaders from Nelson Mandela to the current president, Jacob Zuma, could not break economic apartheid. [Journo shd define what it means to ‘break’ economic apartheid. Otherwise just perpetuating meaningless cliches.] Whites own more than 80 percent of the land in South Africa. [This figure is used by a few politicians and a few lazy journalists. It’s also incorrect. Fact-checking site Africa Check looked into this here: https://africacheck.org/reports/do-40000-whites-own-80-of-sa-the-claim-is-incorrect/ — from that webpage: The latest government land audit shows that 79% of land is privately owned, “which includes ownership by individuals, companies and trusts and includes all urban real estate and agricultural and mining land.” Also, since millions of non-white people own land privately either individually or through companies and trusts, it’s clearly nonsense to say that 80% of land in South Africa is white-owned. Economist Mike Schussler’s analysis is that whites own only 47% of land “by size” – see here: http://www.fin24.com/Economy/kill-dangerous-property-nationalisation-slogans-with-facts-economist-20160222 — this claim about land ownership is central to the journo’s flawed thesis.] The slow pace of change has enabled radical political leaders like Julius Malema, who calls for black land reclamation, to gain a strong following and to terrify the white minority who owns the land. [I think that many white people actually like Malema, given his strong opposition to corrupt President Zuma, but anyway…] Malema has made a career of stoking rage. In 2012, the ruling African National Congress party expelled him for publicly singing an outlawed African song with lyrics containing the phrase “Dubula iBuni” (“Shoot the Boer”). [Not true. The ANC expelled Malema for “for expressing his personal views at a press conference of the ANC Youth League on 31 July 2011 which sought to portray the ANC government and its leadership under President Zuma in a negative light in relation to the African agenda and which had the potential to sow division and disunity in the ANC, and for expressing his personal views on Botswana which contravened ANC policy.” There is a link to the original ANC National Disciplinary Committee document outlining reasons for Malema’s expulsion here: https://mg.co.za/article/2012-02-29-julius-malema-expelled ]

White colonizers created Kruger park in 1898 by declaring it terra nullius—empty land—ignoring indigenous property and hunting rights, as well as ancestral burial grounds. [First, the Afrikaner leadership of the Transvaal Republic, which in 1898 controlled the land that today is the Kruger Park, did not consider themselves colonizers. The term “Afrikaner” simply means “African”, indicating that Afrikaners consider themselves of this continent and not ‘outsider’ colonists. Second, the Kruger Park was not created in 1898 – the Sabie Game Reserve, a much smaller area, was declared in 1898. The Kruger National Park came into being in 1926 via the amalgamation of the Sabie Game Reserve, the Shingwedzi Reserve and numerous pieces of privately-owned land. Third, — though I stand to be corrected – there would have been no reason to declare the Sabie Game Reserve terra nullius – it was, according to my references, declared as government-owned land, not nobody’s land — and legal sources of mine know of no instance where land has been declared terra nullius by governments in the territory today known as the Republic of South Africa.] The old tribal animist traditions quickly became useless in urban slums and communal villages, where the only animals most of South Africa’s blacks encounter are scrofulous dogs. [This sentence is so incorrect, so ignorant, so racist – actually so multi-dimensionally stupid – that it would take a dedicated essay to unpack and address it. Someone would have to pay me to do so.] During apartheid, some local villagers still hunted on unclaimed land [what is “unclaimed land” and where and when did it exist in South Africa? I’ve never heard of such a thing in modern South Africa, as in within my lifetime, and I was born long before the end of apartheid. None of my highly experienced legal sources have heard of such a thing, either.] around Kruger, but in 1993, the year apartheid ended, [The end of apartheid is generally considered to be marked by the first democratic election in which all South Africans regardless of race could vote. This took place in April 1994, not 1993.] the South African government instituted the Game Theft Act, [The Game Theft Act is Act 105 of 1991, not 1993] which decreed that whoever put enclosures around land containing wild game effectively owned it, along with whatever animals it contained. [This is not what the Game Theft Act says IMHO. In my reading the Game Theft Act says that if you enclose *your* legally-owned land to a legislated standard you can obtain a Certificate of Adequate Enclosure which gives you the rights to own specified species of wildlife on that land. The Game Theft Act does NOT give anyone the right to claim ownership of any piece of land and all the wildlife on it simply by fencing it. The Game Theft Act does not deal with ownership of land – it deals with ownership of live wildlife. Read my recent piece on wildlife ranching on the Ensia website for a more accurate, though abbreviated take on this: http://edge.ensia.com/fenced-in/ ] Long rows of electrified fences went up overnight, [Not true. Not beginning with the passage of the Game Theft Act, not nearly overnight, and not in the main electrified – not in 1993, at least.] marking off hundreds of miles of newly private wild animal range. [Completely wrong. Game ranchers did not suddenly get to privately own to formerly “unclaimed” land simply by fencing it post the passage of the Game Theft Act. See comments just above.] In rural areas, generations of black men and boys have been cut off from a traditional rite of passage: hunting a wild animal. [Which traditions is the journo referring to here? Sources?] Tribes whose ancestors would kill a Cape buffalo whenever a chief died in order to bury him in its hide [which ‘tribes’ traditionally bury their chiefs in Cape Buffalo hides? Source?] cannot afford the hunting licenses trophy hunters buy for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. [How much does a Cape Buffalo hunting permit (which is obtained from provincial governments) cost in the unnamed area that the journo is referring to? Any evidence that the unnamed ‘tribes’ can’t afford it or have tried and failed to obtain permits or buffalo hides?] Many can’t afford the $5 daily adult entry fee to Kruger park. [The daily ‘conservation fee’ for South African adults is closer to $6, but whatever, journo shd know that SA National Parks has a mechanism for school & community groups, etc. to apply for free entrance to Kruger.]

Extinction now threatens many game species, [this is a general statement with little meaning in this context. The instances where legal trophy hunters genuinely threaten species with extinction are few.] and the demand for access to them from wealthy tourists and hunters is increasing. [Evidence that demand to hunt African species is increasing?] That means individual wild animals can be worth as much as a million dollars to a white landowner, [They can actually be worth this and much more to any landowner, regardless of race. Also, you don’t even have to own land to own a wild animal. The govt has ongoing programs to donate wildlife from national parks to black communities.] and lodge guests pay big bucks to see not just one or two giraffes and elephants but all the animals. That means the lodges need to bring more animals closer to their property, so some owners lay out food to lure great cats [South Africans and zoologists normally call them big cats, not great cats, and I don’t know of a single lodge that lays out food to bring them closer to photographic (as in, non-hunting) tourists. I know of lodges that monitor their whereabouts and habituate them to humans, but they don’t bait them in for viewing purposes.] and herbivores within viewing distance and have hired mercenary armies [I’ll deal with journos continued use of the term ‘mercenary’ at end of article] to protect the animals.

Those mercenaries, nearly all white, are hunting poachers, nearly all black. [Incorrect. Will address this statement lower down.] That’s how the most Jurassic of animals walking the Earth today ended up in the middle of an increasingly bloody race war. [The Jurassic Period ended more than 100-million years before that distant ancestor of modern rhinos, Paraceratherium, roamed the Earth. To describe rhinos as essentially Jurassic is therefore akin to calling an Ai Weiwei conceptual sculpture a wonderful example of prehistoric cave art. But maybe I shouldn’t quibble about this – after all, what’s a hundred million years but a piffling flicker of geological time?]

Death at dawn, or dusk

Sitting under a tree during a three-month African safari in the 1930s, Ernest Hemingway wrote this note for his memoir Green Hills of Africa, “I expected, always, to be killed by one thing or another and I, truly, did not mind that anymore.” [when men were men and rhinos were rhinos, eh?]

The iconic animals of Africa have always inspired both fear and courage in white men like Papa Hemingway. [Only in white men?] To sleep near them in the bush at night, to hear their shrieks, roars and growls, to be close enough to smell them, or to encounter them face-to-face at dawn or dusk is a primal thrill that cannot be found in cities or cultivated lands.

A brief encounter with nature “red in tooth and claw” is perhaps the greatest of the white privileges for sale in Africa. [I’ll mention here that large numbers of Indian and Chinese tourists have visited wildlife reserves in Africa in recent years, and South African parks have seen a gradual increase in black tourist visitors. Wildlife encounters are increasingly multi-ethnic ‘privileges’. Does the journo prefer virtue-signaling over accuracy?] Tourists and trophy hunters pay $80 billion annually to photograph—and for a premium, to kill—the great beasts of Africa. [Source of number? And why not separate wildlife viewing tourism aka non-consumptive tourism from hunting aka consumptive tourism?] The president’s sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump are avid trophy hunters whose self-satisfied selfies [Minor point, but illustrates journalistic sloppiness: the well-known photos of the junior Trumps with their wildlife trophies are not selfies; they were not taken by the subjects themselves, but by other people.] with carcasses of the Big Five are online. But modern trophy hunting—lions raised in cages and rich Americans shooting at them from moving vehicles—barely resembles the safaris that enthralled Hemingway. [The particular type of canned lion hunting outlined by the writer near the top of the piece is not ‘modern trophy hunting’. Modern trophy hunting takes many forms. It’s still possible to undertake hunts very similar to those embarked on by Hemingway; in fact my sources in the hunting industry say there’s been a recent shift away from ‘guaranteed’/canned hunts to more free-range hunts.] The chief danger now is indigestion after too many trips to the lodge’s groaning boards.

But while giraffes, zebras, elephants, lions, baboons and warthogs stalk, clamber and strut across the veld, the one thing tourists and hunters will rarely see on a South African safari is a black South African. They work at the lodges, and sometimes a black “tracker” sits on a high seat affixed to the hood of the safari truck, tracking the old-fashioned way, before the era of GPS, drones and tracking-collared animals. Native black trackers who learned their skills from prior generations have become as rare as the rhino. [How many “native black trackers” are there in SA? Did journo bother to find out? Or is this just an assumption?] Most black South Africans have not encountered wild animals for generations. [Does the journo have stats to back up this claim? How does she account for the fact that SA National Parks’ stats show steadily growing local black visitorship to national parks?]

The poachers who track rhino on foot are a lot more like Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt than the pudgy American trophy hunters of today. [This is IMHO an absurd comparison to make. It would take an essay to point out the incongruities in this statement. Also, how does the writer know that American trophy hunters of today are, as a rule, ‘pudgy’? Seems like a pointlessly pejorative statement to make unless it’s backed by evidence] They clamber over park fences or are driven in through the gates by accomplices. Armed with Czech-made CZ rifles, [sometimes. They often use other weapons, too.] they sleep rough for days, braving heat, thorny bush, deadly snakes, lions and even rampaging elephants. If they find a rhino, they shoot it and saw off the horn, leaving the dead animal in the bush to be found—or not. Vultures circling over a dead rhino are nature’s first alert to rangers and mercenaries, so to gain more time to escape, poachers have poisoned vast numbers of Kruger park vultures.

If a poacher makes it over the nearest fence with his trophy, he can support an extended family for a generation. [Really? How much can he make from a horn and how much does it cost to support an extended family for a generation? How many people are in this ‘extended family’?] If he gets caught—and many do—he can go to prison or be killed on the spot. The reward is so great and the poverty so deep in South Africa that there’s an inexhaustible supply of young men signing up for the job.

‘My 14th war’

To stop poachers, South African landowners and Kruger park have hired battalions of mercenaries and spent millions equipping them with high-tech gear, planes and drones. These mercenaries [that ‘mercenaries’ word again, which I’ll deal with lower down] come from all over the world but are usually white. [Untrue. The vast majority of on-the-ground rangers – apparently part of the set of people journo calls ‘mercenaries’ — in South Africa are local black South Africans. This is true overall for private and government reserves. Will deal with this lower down.] Recently, VetPaw, which hires and sends mercenaries to the Kruger area, began recruiting out-of-work American veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to go to South Africa to put their training to work on a mission they can feel good about—protecting the rhino. [Foreigners are not legally allowed to carry weapons in an anti-poaching role in South Africa. Americans working with VetPaw and similar groups are legally restricted to training/advisory roles.]

The ground around one mercenary “forward operating base” I visited was decorated with bleached buffalo and elephant skulls. The mercenaries use this hut as a headquarters and are dispatched in teams to sleep in the bush for a week at a time. Using modern combat technology, they track, hunt and sometimes kill poachers. [Are these South Africans or foreigners? The word ‘mercenaries’ implies foreigners, but it’s not clear. I would like to see actual evidence of even one foreigner carrying weapons and killing poachers; this would be an important story. See comment just above.] The law allows them to shoot only after they are shot at, but as one mercenary told me, “What happens in the bush stays in the bush.” [What sort of ‘mercenary’ said this? Nationality? Age? Experience? Does this person actually exist or is it an apocryphal character made up by the writer?]

Conservationists counted 6,094 poached rhinos between 2008 and 2016, with the vast majority killed in South Africa. No one knows how many black men have been killed in the bush while trying to kill rhino, but the president of Mozambique last year complained that 500 men had been shot in and around the park. Other conservationists estimate the number could be in the thousands. [Who are these ‘other conservationists’ and where do their estimates ‘in the thousands’ come from? There is fairly credible evidence that hundreds of alleged poachers have been killed in South Africa since 2008, but I have never seen anything like credible evidence for thousands, nor heard that claim from any serious person in the conservation world.]

A lean, retired South African army officer we will call Officer A., because he refused to speak on the record, works for a consortium of private landowners. “This is my 14th war,” he says. “It’s like going to war in Angola.” [14th war? What’s that supposed to mean? What were the other 13?]

When the mercenaries catch poachers, they are supposed to bring them to the local jail. But Officer A. says local authorities don’t hold them for long, and the cases against them never stick: [This is not true. Many poachers have been found guilty and jailed since 2008, as a simple websearch will show. A serious journo should IMHO not uncritically report this claim.] Nonsterile evidence rooms are stacked with unidentified weapons; nothing is bagged; there’s no chain of evidence. [Again, this is not uniformly true, as a simple websearch will show. It should not be uncritically reported IMHO.] He claims even fingerprinting is useless because the rural police stations’ paper recordkeeping is a shambles. Even if Officer A. did have a shot at making serious cases, he thinks the poaching would continue. “These are inside jobs,” he says. “Lots of South Africans take jobs at the parks in order to be near the poaching. The horrible truth is, the rangers can’t be trusted.” [There are certainly bad apples within the ranger corps, and it’s widely believed by private reserve owners that the majority of poaching cases are inside jobs, but to make the claim that all rangers can’t be trusted is absurd and this should not be reported uncritically. Many risk their lives daily to apprehend poachers. Hundreds of poachers have been apprehended every year in recent years.]

Officer A. says with admiration that the poachers are extremely fit and adds that he’d have more success if the authorities would let him hunt them with dogs. “If you can find the guy with three hours left to the gate on foot, you can catch him. But they run. If we had dogs, the guy gets torn apart.” [Sniffer dogs are used in many parts of South Africa to track poachers.]

Officer A. believes the best thing wildlife conservationists could do to save the rhino would be to set up a legal defense fund for him if he gets arrested. “I don’t care—I will be the test case.” [I’ve heard this sort of macho-talk before. It’s usually uttered by wannabes on the periphery of the business. Journo gives us no reason to take her source seriously; she does not IMHO establish his credibility at all.]

Like shooting lions in a barrel

The trophy hunters are mostly white Americans, although there are plenty of moneyed Europeans and Russians. They are almost always men and, curiously, often have medical degrees. [‘often have medical degrees’? How often? Why is this relevant?] They pay from $30,000 to $100,000 for the right to kill one of the Big Five [I’ve seen lion hunts advertised for significantly less than $30,000] —the American lobby group Safari Club International auctions off hunts for as much as $300,000 at its annual convention in Las Vegas. The money helps pay for the intense lobbying of governments and international wildlife conservation organizations, which are under pressure to ban or severely restrict trophy hunts.

In 2015, trophy hunting made headlines when Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer killed Cecil, the largest male lion in a pride in the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. [Source for claim that Cecil was the largest in his pride?] Palmer’s guide had lured the lion off protected territory with an elephant carcass. In death, Cecil—who had been fitted with a tracking collar by Oxford University–affiliated researchers—became a martyr and an icon, with an outraged social media following baying for a ban on trophy hunting. In response, the Zimbabwean government charged Palmer’s local guide (who is white) with hunting without a permit, then dropped the charge in 2016. (It has not dropped a similar charge against the black Zimbabwean landowner where the kill occurred.) The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that American hunters bringing trophy animals home had to prove they were not from protected areas. [Probably untrue. I know of of U.S. bans on importing trophies of captive-bred lions and of lions from the whole of Zimbabwe (not just protected areas) but no mention of a U.S. import ban on lion trophies taken from protected areas. The ban on import of Zimbabwean trophies has now been lifted.]

Other than that, Cecil’s death didn’t change much. In July, another American trophy hunter blasted another collared lion outside the same park. The latest trophy was a son of Cecil named Xanda.

The dwindling supply of lions drives a new and growing industry in South Africa: wild game farming for “canned hunts.” [The canned lion industry is not very new. Also, because of recent restrictions by the U.S. govt on the import of captive-bred lion trophies there are signs that it’s shrinking rapidly]. Because trophy hunters will pay a premium for a guaranteed kill, [Really? My experience is that canned hunts are often a lot cheaper than old-style, multi-day ‘wild’ lion hunts. I would like to see journo’s stats showing that hunters pay a premium for canned hunts.] wildlife ranching has become such a big business in South Africa that it is drawing food and water resources away from traditional agriculture. [Interesting claim. What are the ‘food resources’ that it’s drawing away from traditional agriculture? Also, wildlife ranching is generally not a water-intensive industry compared to almost all forms of traditional agriculture, which is one of the reasons that it’s so popular in arid parts of southern Africa, so would be interested to see journo’s basis for the water claim.] To make extra-large lions, breeders are now cross-breeding lions with tigers to make “ligers.” [Not true. A tiny handful of breeders have crossed tigers and lions because of the freakshowish appeal of having a hybrid creature. A liger is not and will never be a lion. You mate big lions to each other to make more big lions. This is elementary biology!] Because trophy hunters prize rarity, breeders also conjure up blue-eyed white lions. [My sources in the game ranching industry & auction data indicate that demand for ‘freak’ animals has dropped off sharply in the last two years or so.] All are born and raised for one purpose: Their taxidermied heads will someday decorate the den of a château in Brussels or a McMansion in Peoria.

Poaching the poachers

White landowners are also farming rhinos—thousands of them now breed and live in captivity, and despite conservationists’ efforts to change the law, South Africa allows rhino horn to be traded domestically. [Writer seems unaware of govt efforts to encourage black ranchers and communities to keep rhinos, and the donation of rhinos to these communities for that purpose.] Rhinos can and do live without their horns, and that’s why some farmers are not terribly eager to curtail the Asian demand that inspires the poachers. That is another stark inequity in the rhino wars: White farmers can sell horn, but blacks are shot for stealing it. [This is a nonsensical comparison to make. I’ll address it lower down.]

To ask about the poacher’s side of this war is, as South African conservationist Martin Bornman, manager of the eco-tourism operation African Conservation Experience, puts it, like trying to defend child rape. No one wants to hear it. “But there is a growing sense with respect to the poachers,” he says, “that white people get away with murder.” [Not entirely true. Many journalists and academics have, over the years, interviewed poachers to understand their motivations. Also many of the rangers who are alleged to have illegally shot & assaulted alleged poachers are black – and they typically don’t get jailed for it.]

Black villagers see poaching as both a right and a necessity. [All black villagers? Also, I can introduce you to gangsters in Cape Town who also see their violent crimes as a ‘right and a necessity’. Criminals often justify what they do in this way. It’s trite.] Annette Hubschle, a criminologist and researcher with the Cape Town Environmental Observatory, calls poaching a protest against the “systematic exclusion” of blacks from game reserves. She found villagers along the park who see the poachers as Robin Hoods, even though many of them have long criminal careers, including murder and gun and drug crimes. “We are using rhino horn to free ourselves,” one horn kingpin told her. [I know of villagers around the Kruger park who see poachers not as Robin Hoods but as simple violent criminals who threaten their communities. The view reported by Hubschle is certainly held by some people in some communities, but is not universal as journo makes it appear to be.]

As villagers tacitly support the poachers, mercenaries have stepped up their brutal campaign to drive them out. In an interview last year, a 23-year-old man named Sboniso Mhlongo described a mass nighttime roundup of black males around the edge of Kruger park. “I was sleeping, it was raining, and it was 1 o’clock, and I was shocked when people arrived, banged the door and broke windows,” Mhlongo said. “These people walked in with a white man and asked me for a gun. Then I was shackled, and I wasn’t given any answers. I was dragged outside into a truck.” [Who conducted this interview? Journo or another person? Why no apparent attempt to identify the location? Why no apparent attempt to clarify (triangulate) Mhlongo’s involvement or non-involvement with poaching? Why no apparent attempt to identify the raiders? Were they private security agents or (government) police? Did they have a warrant? Did the raid have anything to do with rhino poaching at all, or were the raiders looking for something else like drugs or guns? We don’t know, which lends little credibility to this story.]

The truck collected more men from nearby villages, and eventually, Mhlongo said, the blacks were taken out of the truck one by one, interrogated and then “beaten until we couldn’t breathe. Beaten to a pulp. And then we were dropped off at home afterwards.” [Did journo see any evidence of injuries beyond Mhlongo’s words? Cellphone photos?]

Mhlongo said “these people” came to his house three times, always at night. The other two times, he hid while they ransacked his home. [Again, who are ‘these people’? The journo seems to have made no attempt to find out.]

Poachers are also attacking humans. One gang is believed to have killed a wildlife veterinarian in front of his wife and baby in a carjacking near Kruger park in 2009. [Was the wildlife vet killed or not? Should be very easy to ascertain the veracity of this story, but journo says he was ‘believed’ to have been killed. ‘Believed’ by who? Surely the vet is either dead or not dead. Yet another count against the credibility of this article. Journo seems to be referring to the 2009 killing of veterinarian Dr Meyer allegedly by Simon “Navara” Valoi, a carjacker who later gained notoriety as a Mozambique-based poaching kingpin.] Another crew of poachers recently attacked an animal refuge center, killed and dehorned rhino and raped a female volunteer.

But the ad hoc, private, military-style response to the rhino war is “priming a massive, explosive situation,” Bornman says, “which, of course, will go way beyond wild animals.”

Bury the poacher

The lobbyists for trophy hunting insist they are true conservationists because their money supports habitat—private, nonagricultural land—where those creatures they want to shoot can roam. Hunting fees helped finance an effort to bring up the white rhino population after the animal was nearly poached and hunted to extinction in the 1960s and 1970s. [The Southern White Rhino was nearly hunted to extinction in the late 1800s, not the 1960s and 70s. Another basic error. (I assume the writer is not referring to the Northern White Rhino, which never occurred anywhere near South Africa, but whose numbers decreased sharply between the 1950s and 90s)] But conservationists with nongovernmental organizations involved in global wildlife protection admit that allowing rich, white people to kill iconic game, while arresting and sometimes killing poor blacks who do the same thing, [they are not doing the same thing. Trophy hunters —- whether you like what they do or not — kill animals legally. Poachers kill them illegally. This is basic stuff and it’s disappointing that journo feels the need to pretend ignorance here. Also why not name these conservationists?] pours fuel on South Africa’s political fires. [As I’ll comment below, data show majority of South Africans of all races disapprove of poaching. Very similar % across races.]

Some conservationists are pushing massive relocation programs. Since poachers wiped out the rhinos in Botswana, groups like the World Wildlife Fund and other deep-pocketed conservationists have been relocating South African rhinos to areas in Botswana that are sparsely populated, where the rhinos are believed to be safer. But the price is prohibitive—tens of thousands of dollars to dart each animal with tranquilizers and chopper it across borders. [I don’t know of any rhinos that have been ‘choppered’ – flown by helicopter – from South Africa to Botswana. They’ve been driven in trucks or flown by fixed-wing aircraft. Does journo have evidence of ‘choppering’?] And while that’s good for the rhino, it’s deadly for the South African tourist economy. [‘Deadly for the South African tourist economy’? That’s a huge claim to make in the absence of any data to support it and masses of data to show that the SA tourist economy is going from strength to strength since the Botswanan translocations began. Can journo back her statement up?]

Conservationists have experimented with public-private partnerships to involve black communities in wildlife tourism. But apartheid has left such a legacy of deep racial distrust that cooperative efforts that have worked in countries like Kenya and Tanzania don’t take in South Africa, according to a representative of one of the largest global conservation entities (who asked to remain anonymous). [Journo could not find an on-record source to say this or any data to support this claim? I know conservationists who say the opposite.]

To white South Africans, rhinos and the other iconic animals are “incredibly emotional,” Bornman says. They are what makes Africa special. That’s not true in black communities. [Here I’ll just note that journo is quite happy to have a single white source speak for all black communities. This also contradicts survey data that I’ll write about in my extended commentary below.] “Here, you see the seeds of the racial disconnect,” he says. “And if you went to the funeral of a poacher, you would see this person is revered, and it’s not shameful.” [Does journo have evidence that Bornman has been to poachers’ funerals? Or is this another Just So Story of the kind I’ve heard many, many times from conservationists?]

The late South African journalist Godknows Nare [Godknows Nare was Zimbabwean, not South African.] last year recorded a poacher’s funeral. June Mabuse, the dead man’s brother, addressed the mourners and complained that the family had received no information about how or why he was shot, and had been barred from performing traditional death rituals near where he was killed. “Our grandfathers were kicked out, and now we can’t even step in because it’s a game reserve,” Mabuse said. “Our government and foreign countries should plead for us to be able to go inside, because those animals, first of all, are not theirs—they are God’s creation. Today, we are being killed like animals, which makes me wonder: Which life is more important, ours or the animals? It seems like the animals are now more valuable than human life. Because we are poor. There is no work, and people are going in there to try and put food on their tables. They are being killed…. Thousands have been killed in that park. And only hundreds of animals.” [Which park is this referring to? Where was the funeral? And why uncritically quote a statement like “thousands have been killed in that park. And only hundreds of animals” as if it’s the truth? Did journo make any attempt to verify this hard-hitting claim?]

Brian Jones runs a large animal rehabilitation center near the northern end of Kruger park, nursing wounded animals back to health, before he tries to re-wild them. An evangelical Christian who believes humanity is in the biblical last days, he deplores rhino poaching and the poisoning of vultures to hide the poachers’ work. But he also recognizes the racial component in all this. He says black rangers call the white rangers “white dogs,” while whites call blacks “kaffir,” an outlawed word comparable in offensiveness to the N-word in the United States. [Do rangers do this as a rule? Or only a tiny handful? Also, the word “kaffir”, although profoundly offensive, has not been outlawed in South Africa. No specific words have been outlawed here. Hate speech, which may include using the word “kaffir” in particular contexts, is illegal. Journo seems not to grasp this.]

“The Big Five are found nowhere else, [nowhere else than where?] and we have killed most of them,” Jones says. “Now there are no animals left. [No animals left where? But somehow the Big Five are still found wherever ‘where’ is? This is very confusing.] We [who is ‘we’?] kicked out the blacks. [From where?] My African staff are not involved in wildlife at all. [Does ‘African’ mean ‘black’ here? I know plenty of white Africans, including myself. I also know plenty of black Africans who are involved in wildlife conservation and ecotourism.] They are getting killed”—by mercenaries and by wild animals in the bush—“and getting no compensation for it. [How does someone get killed by wild animals in the bush while simultaneously not being involved in wildlife at all?] Their kids don’t even know animals. Here is how they look at it: “Are you saying you prefer a rhino to a black man?” [Jones’ quotes are incoherent/nonsensical, yet journo uses them to tie up her story/thesis. Bizarre! Also, why did she not speak to Jones’ black staff directly? Why uncritically report a single white man’s statements about numerous black people as if his words are the gospel truth? Seems racist/patronizing.]

For many white hunters, safari tourists and conservationists, the answer is yes. [how many is many? A nationally-significant many or a I-spoke-to-a-few-people many? And she doesn’t seem to have spoken to a single hunter or tourist. I’ll deal with this further below.]

***

EXTENDED COMMENTARY:

1. “Mercenary”

Burleigh makes liberal use of the word “mercenary” throughout her piece. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “mercenary” as “one that serves merely for wages; especially : a soldier hired into foreign service“. The word carries negative connotations; mercenaries are unpatriotic and have no loyalty above money, they’ll fight and kill for any master who pays, no matter how immoral the battle.

But Burleigh’s use of “mercenary” is confusing. It’s unclear to me exactly who or which type of person she’s referring to. She seems to have chosen the word over more specific and accurate alternatives to add sensation to her piece, perhaps to bias the reader against the armed men who work to protect wildlife.

She writes, for example, that “South African landowners and Kruger park have hired battalions of mercenaries” to stop poachers.

This is who really patrols which areas:

  • The Kruger National Park is patrolled by its own national parks rangers, employed by South African National Parks (SanParks). These are South Africans employed by a government agency and are therefore in no way mercenaries. The Kruger is also patrolled by South African National Defence Force soldiers who also are in no way mercenaries. In addition, the South African Police Service is also involved in anti-poaching work in and around the park. They’re policemen and -women; also not mercenaries.
  • Private wildlife ranchers, nature reserve owners, etc. – often employ private anti-poaching rangers. Sometimes these rangers are employed via a private, specialist anti-poaching company. They have somewhat different rights and responsibilities from government-employed rangers, but do essentially the same work. They, too, are not mercenaries in the mainstream sense of the word. They are almost all South African, working in South Africa, and for some their job is more than a job — it’s a moral mission to save wildlife.
  • There is a tiny handful of foreign ex-soldiers doing anti-poaching work in South Africa – I would be surprised if it was more than 1% of anti-poaching workers in the country, and it may be less than 0.1%. They all work on private land. They are not working for the army of their country of origin, so there might be some merit in calling them “mercenaries”, but Burleigh fails to note that they are not legally allowed to carry firearms while in South Africa. They are trainers and advisors, “security contractors” maybe. They’re not fighters, and many are volunteers. So “mercenaries” is probably not an appropriate term to use for them, either.

Summary: Burleigh sensationally and negatively mischaracterizes many of the important people in her story, thus misleading her readers. Why?

2. “Increasingly bloody race war”

Burleigh writes that South Africa is descending into an “increasingly bloody race war” around rhinos.

Is it “increasingly bloody”, as in, is the rate of human death and injury surrounding rhino poaching going up as time goes on? She doesn’t produce any evidence of this. (I also don’t have any evidence that more people involved in rhino poaching or protection have been killed this year compared to previous years.) So why does she write this? For pure sensation?

As for “race war”, Burleigh writes about “mercenaries, nearly all white, [who] are hunting poachers, nearly all black”, black poachers running for their lives to get away before “white mercenary soldiers with night-vision goggles hunt them down and kill them” and “mercenaries” who “come from all over the world but are usually white”. One of her sources is quoted as saying that there “is a growing sense with respect to the poachers … that white people [presumably “mercenaries”] get away with murder.”

Presuming that by “mercenaries” she means anti-poaching rangers, I have no clue where she got the idea that they are nearly all white. Has she been to South Africa? Did she look up from her notebook? The vast majority of the ranger corps in government parks and reserves are black South African men. The vast majority of the hundreds/thousands of private anti-poaching rangers employed by the larger companies and agencies are black South African men. There are thousands of private game ranches and nature reserves in South Africa; I know of only one private reserve where there are more white anti-poaching rangers than black anti poaching rangers, and they are white South Africans, not white foreigners. The well-connected owner of this reserve does not know of a single other reserve with a white-majority anti-poaching staff; I asked while writing this.

Burleigh does not provide details of a single identifiable incident in which a white “mercenary” has killed or injured a black person; not a single date, place, names of killer and victim, etc. She only has what seem to be vague, unverified second- or third-hand accounts of assaults and injuries, racist epithets being spoken and racial tensions existing.

It’s common cause among conservationists, ranchers and anti-poaching trainers I have spoken to that the government rangers in the Kruger National Park shoot more alleged poachers than any other ranger corps. I don’t have hard evidence to back this up — it’s a little difficult to find and I’ve not focused on it — but it’s an assertion that makes sense given the large size of the park and the number of poachers that are known to enter it. As I’ve written above, the vast majority of field rangers in Kruger are black. There are some white rangers in Kruger, but Burleigh provides no evidence that the white rangers are motivated by racism or are killing more black poachers than their black colleagues are.

In short, Burleigh’s “race war”, with “battalions” (i.e. hundreds or thousands) of white “mercenaries” hunting down and killing hundreds or thousands of black poachers, doesn’t exist. One of the central pillars of her story seems actually to be a low, warm mound of fresh rhino dung.

3. Race and attitudes towards rhinos & poachers

Burleigh calls “the” rhino “a potent symbol for the ugly inequality between whites and blacks in post-apartheid South Africa.” She paints a picture of whites who care about rhinos more than black humans and blacks who don’t care about rhinos at all. But she provides no data to support this – her evidence seems not much more than a white man saying that for whites, rhinos are “incredibly emotional” but they are not so for blacks, and another white man describing how black people think that white people value rhinos above black lives.

The idea that black people in general don’t care whether rhinos or other wildlife survives is commonly voiced by conservationists of all races in South Africa (I’ve heard it vociferously stated by black National Parks managers and many white game ranchers) and Burleigh has repeated it. It’s one of those truthy statements that gets more solidly entrenched as actual truth as the years go by. There is little credible data to support it, though.

Between early 2015 mid-late 2016 I worked in South Africa for an international non-profit WildAid. During that time I was involved in commissioning a groundbreaking opinion survey of a broad cross-section of South African society to assess attitudes towards rhinos, wildlife conservation in general, and towards rhino poachers. (Such surveys had not, to our knowledge, ever been done before.) The results were largely surprising to me and the highly experienced opinion pollsters. They showed that a large majority of South Africans of all races cared deeply about wildlife, and thought that rhinos should be protected. 80% of black South Africans said they would be “very sad” if rhinos went extinct in the wild, compared to 83% for Indian, to 84% for those of mixed ethnic origin and 81% for whites. A TV executive I know told me that wildlife shows on the National Geographic channel had more black South African viewers than white.

Wildlife conservation in general and rhino conservation in particular are therefore highly unifying – in fact more unifying that just about anything else in South Africa, according to the pollsters. (South Africa is a notoriously divided society and there are usually stark, racially defined, differences in attitudes about most things in opinion survey results.)

The survey did also find that whites, compared to respondents of other races, were more likely to want poachers shot on sight rather than jailed, so there is some truth in the notion that whites care more for rhinos’ than poachers’ lives (note: poachers, not black people). Middle-aged, urban white women were particularly inclined to advocate for shooting poachers on sight rather than imposing jail time or a lesser sanction, but they are not out in the field tracking poachers.

The fact that opinion survey results show a possible grain of truth in Burleigh’s last line does not make it less irresponsible or weaselly, though. By using the word “many” (many white hunters, safari tourists and conservationists”) without citing numbers or other specifics she gives herself a get-out-of-jail-free card should better evidence undermine her statement. “Many” could be 10 or 10-million, after all.

4. White farmers using Game Theft Act to steal land

Burleigh paints a picture of white ranchers using the Game Theft Act — which she erroneously writes passed in 1993, the same year that she erroneously writes that apartheid ended — to erect enormous lengths of electrified fences to effectively steal what she calls “unclaimed land” on which black people had hunted. Thus, she writes, “black men and boys have been cut off from a traditional rite of passage: hunting a wild animal.” She says the fences went up “overnight” in 1993.

As I point out in-line above, she has obviously completely misunderstood how land rights work in South Africa both pre- and post-1993, the letter and intent of the Game Theft Act, as well as the effect of the Game Theft Act.

It’s absolutely true that whites progressively took over more and more land from blacks as they moved into and settled the area today known as the Republic of South Africa from the 1650s onwards, just as white people did in vis-a-vis American Indian land in what is today the USA. The moral implications of this are clear to any thinking person. Land dispossession continued in the apartheid era, but it happened in a codified manner; there were maps and title deeds involved, i.e. land ownership was clearly established – land belonged to the government, private people, or was communally-owned, mostly within the so-called “homelands” aka bantustans. Farmers who erected game fences to allow themselves to claim ownership of wildlife in terms of the Game Theft Act after its passage in 1991 erected those game fences on the borders of their own privately- and legally-owned land. I don’t know of a single instance where game fences were erected into “unclaimed land” that prior to the passage of the Act had been used by black men and boys for hunting. If anyone had been hunting without permission on private land (any land, for that matter) they would have been (in legal terms) poaching.

So Burleigh’s picture of white farmers using the passage of the Game Theft Act in 1993 (sic) to acquire vast tracts of black people’s traditional hunting land in the post-apartheid era is interesting, to say the least. If any white farmer had done this he/she would be stealing land, plain and simple. This is a serious crime, and worth writing about — but Burleigh doesn’t supply a single hard piece of evidence that the Game Theft Act was used to steal even a single acre. She maligns white farmers on the basis of a series of her own misunderstandings and also doesn’t bother to mention that many white farms have been returned to black people since the end of the apartheid era via the ongoing land claims process, which is designed to reduce racial disparities in land ownership.

5. Race and shooting rhinos & selling horn

Burleigh describes how rich white hunters come to South Africa to hunt wildlife and leave unharmed, and how blacks are shot for doing what she implies is the same thing and how this leads to increased political tension. (“conservationists with nongovernmental organizations involved in global wildlife protection admit that allowing rich, white people to kill iconic game, while arresting and sometimes killing poor blacks who do the same thing pours fuel on South Africa’s political fires.”)

Whatever you might feel about trophy hunting — I don’t understanding how anyone gets pleasure from killing a magnificent animal like a lion, elephant or rhino purely to hang its head on a wall — there is an obvious distinction that legal, permitted hunters and illegal hunters aka poachers; the small matter of the law. If Burleigh accepts that the rule of law is one of the key ingredients of civilization, it’s underhand of her to ignore this in her attempts to further malign white farmers and their “mercenaries”. There is also the small matter of legal trophy hunters generally not being a threat to other people; rhino poachers often open fire on game rangers and others. Shooting poachers is without question sometimes a matter of simple self-defence. (Another point that Burleigh fails to make is that an increasing number of trophy hunters are coming to South Africa from Asia. They are surely not “white” in Burleigh’s estimation.)

That is not to say that the deaths in relation to rhino poaching are not tragic/sad/unfortunate/regrettable. They are. The fact that so many poachers are shot is an indication of institutional breakdown and poverty in South Africa. Shooting poachers is clearly not a long-term solution to the problem and creates deep unhappiness in poachers’ families, within poaching communities and exacerbates tensions between these communities and wildlife parks, but Burleigh and her mysteriously unnamed sources offer no evidence that it meaningfully increases political tensions at a national level.

Burleigh also writes that there is “another stark inequity in the rhino wars: White farmers can sell horn, but blacks are shot for stealing it.”

First: Any legal rhino horn owner regardless of race can, subject to obtaining certain permits, sell legally-obtained horn.

Second: Poachers do not simply steal horn. They enter areas illegally while carrying deadly weapons in order to kill rhinos in order to obtain horn, thus threatening wildlife and human life.

I don’t know of any instances where someone was shot for simply stealing horn off a shelf, like a shoplifter would steal candy from a corner store. (There is no simply stealing rhino horn. Because it’s so valuable it’s heavily protected and stealing it often requires the use of threat of deadly force.)  Burleigh’s framing implies that legal rhino horn ownership is determined by race — whites apparently being the only ones who are allowed to sell it — and that black poachers are shot for an almost-harmless act. This is obviously absurd.

6. A lost opportunity and more oil on a destructive fire

I feel that Burleigh’s deeply flawed article represents a missed opportunity to meaningfully address the serious issues that South Africa’s rhino poaching crisis brings up. By making such an extraordinary mess of the piece, by spreading misinformation on a global platform, she allows those who would evade difficult questions further reason to do so.

The fact that there’s racism in South Africa isn’t news; we have an all-you-can-eat kaleidoscopic smorgasbord of racism on offer here. Overt racism, covert racism, vanilla white-on-black racism, postmodern racism, every sort of inter-ethnic racism you can imagine, self-hating racism, inter-lingual racism, violent racism, non-violent racism… Every halfway-conscious South African graduates into adulthood with a Masters in Racism Studies from the University of Growing Up In This Country. I’m sure there are undiscovered species of racism lurking in the underbrush of our collective unconscious. It’s a bit like the U.S.A. this way, except more so and actually different. (There are also millions of South Africans working on themselves and in their communities to deal positively with our many racisms.)

Race lies at the center of debates over land ownership in South Africa, and because wildlife conservation has land at it’s core, racial issues have to be addressed when we set about saving species. Racially-skewed land ownership patterns are one of the most obvious and difficult legacies of apartheid and one of the most explosive and complex issues in the country today. Race lies at the heart of debates around law enforcement and punishment; our crumbling police and judicial institutions result in large numbers of people — of all races — taking the law into their own hands, and we absolutely need to ask if some people are being targeted by vigilantes because of their race. With wildlife crime becoming more intense and wildlife criminals becoming more violent, there are genuine concerns about the role that race plays in the violence around poaching and the administration of justice. We need to ask why some white poachers and rhino horn traffickers go free on bail while their court cases drag on for years while we hear of other alleged poachers — black — apparently being summarily and extra-judicially executed. Key information about rhino numbers and poaching is being suppressed by government officials, and well-known rhino horn kingpins remain un-arrested despite good evidence against them, and we have to figure out why. (Godknows Nare, the Zimbabwean journalist whose recording Burleigh quotes from in her piece, was recently shot dead under very suspicious circumstances by South African police.) We have to ask why, 20+ years after the end of apartheid, conservation is still so white.

But these issues need to be approached with nuance and care. Those of us who work in journalism in this country every day know all too well that South Africa can be a dangerous place and people suffer genuine harm when misinformation spreads. Stories about racism spread especially quickly. Journalists and honest political leaders here are under extreme pressure from powerful criminal networks; the death threats are flowing thick and fast and people are losing their lives under suspicious circumstances. Rhino conservationists and law enforcement officers have been killed by poaching syndicates, and innocent people have doubtless suffered serious harm after being falsely implicated in rhino poaching. Rhino poaching intersects with so many deadly serious issues and involves so many powerful forces that people can actually die as a result of stories about it. (Think “cocaine” and “Mexico” and dial it back a little. We are thankfully not yet at the multiple-bodies-hanging-from-highway-overpasses stage yet.)

South Africa’s flaws sometimes seem so overt that it’s tempting to dispense with the basics of reporting when writing about the country. Double-checking facts, getting as much detail about interviewees on record, not being seduced by Just So Stories, etc. — all this is very easy to let go, especially if you, like Burleigh, can climb into a jetliner and be a safe hemisphere away with a sensational piece to hand to your editor by morning. (Wildlife stories are prone to suffering this treatment, because “it’s only animals, not something important like business or politics, right?”) But South Africa is extraordinarily complex and it’s overt problems have very deep and multi-faceted roots. Things are often not what they seem, especially when viewed superficially through American lenses. When a journalist botches a story it makes it so much harder for other journos to get it right; sources evaporate, audience trust declines even further and, as I’ve written above, screwed-up wildlife crime stories place people and animals at risk.

I think it was New York Times scribe Nic Kristof who said something like “you have to remember that the good guys lie just as much as the bad guys do.” Could I impertinently suggest that Burleigh and her editors get this neatly tattooed on to the inside of their eyelids?ENDS

NatureUp! My wildlife conservation blog on The Guardian is now live

Posted in Uncategorized by adamwelz on June 14, 2013

My new blog on The Guardian, NatureUp, has gone live. Check it out here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/nature-up

Southern White Rhino at Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa ©Sarah Geline 2013

Southern White Rhino at Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa ©Sarah Geline 2013

Occupy Sandy, the (not) National Guard & the misuse of a photo I made while helping out after the hurricane

Posted in ALL BLOG POSTS, random bits, Uncategorized by adamwelz on November 11, 2012

UPDATE 12 Nov 2012: Strike Debt have, unethically and without permission, used my image again on their facebook page (see below). They have ignored repeated requests via Twitter, Facebook and email to remove the photo and apologize for their unethical use of it. They are also soliciting cash donations on their website without saying who they are and how such donations will be audited, if at all. I’d like to remind readers that do-gooder schemes can be a great cover for fraud, especially if the people collecting the cash are nameless and the donations are not transparently audited. Donate to Strike Debt at your own risk.

UPDATE 13 Nov 2012: Following a request to facebook, my photograph has been removed from Strike Debt’s facebook profile.

UPDATE 15 Nov 2012: I’ve been reliably informed that the young men in military uniform in my photo that went viral on facebook & twitter are cadets from the Oneonta Job Corps, a training program for low-income youth. They drove 4 hours each way to help old people in storm-damaged accomodation in Coney Island. Strike Debt have yet to apologise for their misleading and unethical use of the photograph.

***

Yesterday, Saturday 11 November 2012, I helped out with the Occupy Sandy relief effort as part of a group put together by the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective.

I met my teammates at the Church of St Luke & St Matthew at 520 Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, one of Occupy Sandy’s major hubs. The church is a collection point for relief goods and a co-ordination and meeting place for volunteers.

View from the pulpit of Church of St. Luke & St. Matthew, 520 Clinton Ave., Brooklyn, New York, USA, showing relief supplies collected by Occupy Sandy. 10 Nov 2012 ©Adam Welz

All new volunteers who arrive at 520 Clinton Avenue are asked to participate in a brief orientation session with an Occupy Sandy organizer, during which the goals and philosophy of the effort are clarified; Occupy Sandy is non-discriminatory, is about mutual aid rather than charity, and so on.

While I was in the church a group of men in military uniform arrived to help. I was told that they were National Guard. Like other new volunteers, they participated in an orientation session. Given the recent history of men in uniform arresting thousands of Occupy activists, the irony of men in uniform listening attentively to a young woman** with an Occupy armband did not escape me. I took a photo with my smartphone and, soon after, tweeted it***. Very few people retweeted this tweet.

Men in US military uniform participate in a volunteer orientation session with an Occupy Sandy organizer, 520 Clinton Ave, Brooklyn, NY, USA. 10 Nov 2012 ©Adam Welz

My wife, @sarahgeline, also tweeted it out from her account – including my Twitter handle @AdamWelz in the tweet – from where it was retweeted numerous times, including by @OccupySandy.

Shortly afterwards, though, things got a little interesting: My photo was posted to an Ow.ly page without without attribution and with the sides of the image cropped away, by user StrikeDebt.

It was then tweeted out near-simultaneously by @OccupyWallSt – implying that the same entity was in control of StrikeDebt’s uploads to Ow.ly and the @OccupyWallSt Twitter account.

Twitter user @StrikeDebt then retweeted the @OccupyWallSt tweet and additionally broadcast its own tweet with the link to the cropped, unattributed version of my photo with the statement “Next to @OccupySandy the Nat Guard looks like an unorganized heap”.

Strike Debt also posted the photo on their facebook page, along with a couple of gently mocking comments. (By 18:45 on Sunday 11 November, when I took this screenshot, it had already received in excess of 500 shares)

Since my image of the men in military uniform and the Occupy Sandy organizer may well have been seen by hundreds of thousands of people at this point, I think it’s important (with a nod to Julian Assange) to maintain the integrity of the historical record and make clear that I did not grant permission to @StrikeDebt to use my photograph. @StrikeDebt did not ask to do this and I would not have granted it, given the words that were tweeted alongside the link to it and the fact that they seem willing to claim credit for images that they didn’t make.

I think that cropping the volunteers in civilian dress out of the picture image makes it look like the men in military uniform were alone in receiving special training from the Occupy Sandy organizer, when they were just participating in the regular, brief orientation along with other volunteers. They were not in any way under the command of the Occupy Sandy organizer.

I think that saying that the “National Guard” looked like “an unorganized heap” is misleading. While I was in the church at 520 Clinton these men — who are in fact not National Guard (see UPDATE 3 above and additions below) — were polite, waited their turn in line just like other volunteers and followed orders from the man who appeared to be their leader. I felt that they were there to help in a spirit of service, like the many other volunteers from all walks of life who have contributed their time, ideas and labor with Occupy Sandy.

I think it’s also fair to say that the scene inside 520 Clinton among the Occupy Sandy crew was the mixture of organization and disorganization one expects from an effort with no clear leaders and where everyone is a volunteer. There was a well-organized group of people allocating drivers and vehicles to destinations with lists of relief supplies that were needed. The people handing out relief goods to volunteers were sharp and fast-moving. But it took almost half an hour for the a human chain to that was moving relief goods from the church to waiting UPS trucks outside to get into its stride.

After helping out in Coney Island by going from door-to-door in a high-rise  public housing block that has been without power since Hurricane Sandy roared through, I feel that there is still a significant need for the type of fast-moving, one-on-one relief that Occupy Sandy is providing.

Medical clinic staffed by volunteers operating out of a modified shipping container, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY, USA. 10 Nov 2012 ©Adam Welz

We encountered old or sick people who were trapped in their apartments because, with building elevators destroyed by the storm surge, they could not get down the pitch dark and thoroughly wet stairwells to the ground floor. Some were running out of vital medications. Due to ongoing leaks — water coming through ceilings and walls — many were developing respiratory problems. The fear and loneliness among some of them was palpable; one trapped woman was more grateful for the fact that we simply shook her hand and treated her with humanity than for the flashlights and medical information we’d assisted her with. There are still many flooded, wrecked cars in the streets, and heaps of flotsam and jetsam from the storm surge on the sidewalks.

Damage from Hurricane Sandy on W 31st Street, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY, USA. 10 Nov 2012 ©Adam Welz

What Occupy Sandy has achieved is truly remarkable, but alienating National Guardsmen — or others in uniform — who are willing to get involved in an attempt to score a cheap point is not helpful to anyone.

I think the people in my photograph deserve a clear, wholehearted apology from @StrikeDebt.

I would also like @StrikeDebt to acknowledged my authorship of the cropped photo he/she/it/they posted without attribution, acknowledge their cropping and misuse of the image, apologize publicly on their website and remove it from any websites he/she/it/they have access to or control. Basic decency demands nothing less.

note: Any person or entity who would like to publish any of my images can leave a comment on this blog.

*I’ve also been told by militarily-informed sources that these men are *not* National Guard, but actually cadets participating in a ‘delayed entry’ military program, the details of which I’m not sure of, and therefore technically civilians. As you can see, there are no obvious rank insignia on the uniforms and the pattern is, according to my sources, out of date. I’ve updated this blog post to reflect that. There’s are lessons here: Don’t assume that everyone you see in the US in military uniform is, in fact, military.

** Various Occupy-related sites are naming the woman with the Occupy armband as Samantha Corbin, an Occupy Sandy organizer. I have not yet confirmed this.

*** Here’s the second use of my photo on Strike Debt’s facebook page. This time they’ve added a slogan.

**** Here’s my original tweet, which I have now removed from the Twitter feed because the men shown are, according to the best info I currently have, technically civilians, and it was still being retweeted more than a day after I posted it. My original tweet of the photo mistakenly referred to the church at 520 Clinton Avenue as ‘St Marks’. It is, of course, the Church of St Luke & St Matthew.

Wild New York doc film

Posted in Uncategorized by adamwelz on August 31, 2012

My short doc about nature nuts in the concrete jungle is now up on my portfolio site!

short film: a change in the weather

Posted in ALL BLOG POSTS, random bits, Uncategorized by adamwelz on March 5, 2012

Hi All

I finally got round to uploading the new edit of my no-budget 3-minuter, ‘a change in the weather’, to Vimeo.

Check it out here:

a change in the weather from Adam Welz on Vimeo.

Feel free to hit the ‘like’ button…

Cheers!

Adam

firehouse, Ladder Company 3, 108 E. 13th St, Manhattan, NY, USA

Posted in ALL BLOG POSTS, photography, Uncategorized by adamwelz on February 23, 2012

Ladder Company 3, 108 E. 13th St, NYC, USA ©Adam S. Welz 2012

They say the best camera is the one you have with you, and the cam in the iPhone 4S is pretty impressive for the dinky little thing that it is. It also automatically GPS tags every image you shoot. I’m using it to commit the 8th Deadly Sin of Americana.

(Ladder Company 3 lost more men as a percentage of its total complement than any other firehouse in NYC on September 11th. It’s next door to the camera repair place I use.)

View from Brooklyn Heights, NY, 23 Aug 2009

Posted in photography, Uncategorized by adamwelz on January 25, 2012

from Brooklyn Heights Promenade, NY, USA, 23 Aug 2009 ©Adam Welz

Just found this while clearing junk out of the archive. Go ahead, spot the Statue.

[later in day] I think I prefer this version:

from Brooklyn Heights Promenade, NY, USA, 23 Aug 2009 ©Adam Welz

Fort Greene sidewalk, Brooklyn, NY, 26 Nov 2011

Posted in Uncategorized by adamwelz on November 26, 2011

today is Blog Action Day – and it’s all about climate!

Posted in Uncategorized by adamwelz on October 15, 2009

Hi All

I’m too busy helping 350.org out with their Africa media liason to write a long blog post.

But I did promise to join thousands of bloggers in doing something for Blog Action Day (the theme this year is climate change) so I’m just going to say that the global Day of Climate Action, Oct 24 (Saturday next week) is going to see the world’s most widespread environmental action EVER. In history. Over 3 000 actions in over 150 countries!

Join and existing action or start your own. Be creative and do what you can to call on world leaders to adopt a fair, ambitious and science-based climate treaty in Copenhagen in December.

Find out more at www.350.org

Cheers!

Adam