Ever since the concept of ownership of land and the hunting rights that come with it, poaching has been deeply counter-cultural and anti-authoritarian. Disappointingly today this is poorly covered in photography; the images coming out reinforce the mistakes being made. The global scale of poaching is a war but it is covered photographically entirely from the anti-poaching side, not only is this counterproductive but it also reveals a misunderstanding of lessons learnt from the past.
From early humans to civilised ones, hunting for food became poaching - illegal, immoral and subversive to landowners and authorities alike. It was at the same time heroic, daring and countercultural in the eyes of the peasants from which most notorious poachers have emerged.
Today it has taken on a global scale and developed an ugly new definition. Species become more rare and demand rises inexorably. It's also a stark representation of a global gap in wealth - resulting in the clash of preservation. for the interests of a group that can afford to not exploit the wildlife, and necessity, for a group that have limited choice but to exploit.
Matthias Klostermayr was a Bavarian outlaw and folk hero from the 18th Century. His story is reminiscent of Robin Hood's; both are shrouded in legend and rumour, both are remembered as working class icons, irrespective of their backgrounds and of the fact that many innocents died on account of their actions. Forgetting their political significance, it could also be argued that these characters were a considerable problem for the smooth running of their areas of operation.
The legends surrounding them reveal social resentment, something we have come to take for granted in the past and sometimes ignore in the present. The Bavarian Haisl, as Klostermayr came to be known, started out as a poacher and with growing fame he became the leader of a gang that robbed and plundered southern Bavaria. Exploiting fragmented territories and principalities, he was incredibly hard to catch and through theft was able to help the impoverished and poor he was surrounded by. Princes and high clergy saw him as a criminal and on catching him subjected him to a gruesome torturous death. In fact many of these stories end in capture and gruesome death, a manifestation of the anger and fear inspired in the authorities under threat.
He was more than a criminal though, he was a manifestation of the poor cooperation and petty rivalries in the area and was indicative of a deeply unhappy impoverished underclass.
Traditionally, poaching in the UK is an enjoyable play of cunning and wits, romanticised by the likes of Rhoald Dahl in Danny the Champion of the World and Fantastic Mr Fox. Outwitting the gamekeeper/farmer was daring, exciting and glorious adventure. Of course this was a dangerous trade, again punishments were severe for those who were caught.
It has been a major news story in recent years as rhino and elephant populations have plummeted in the interests of the illegal ivory trade. A potent cocktail of fragmented territories, poverty, instability, porous borders, industrialisation, and globalisation (the last two aside, there's little difference between Klostermayr's Bavaria and Southern Africa today) has made it a massive and unsustainable problem. There's little doubt that the likes of South Africa see the crisis as an insurgency, their sovereignty inextricably linked to their flagship national parks, from which poachers seem to be able to remove ivory at will.
Most of those shooting for ivory are poor; in fact poverty and poaching hotspots are closely associated in Africa. They will either be arrested or shot (often the latter) if caught. The gap in understanding is staggering - it seems to me that the more militarised the defence of national parks, the higher the price of ivory. Those who claim to be defending the rhinos are actually creating a tighter market, decreasing supply, increasing risk.
They're actually creating the market that they are so adamant in stopping. The more they militarise, the better the ivory trade and profits from it.
Klostermayr and Hood were heroes of their time, beloved subversives, thieves and poachers. Poachers today are unnamed and anonymous for the most part, expendable impoverished entities in a massive global trade. If they do nothing there's little to no paid work, if they poach they risk death and incarceration.
Julian Rademeyer's excellent book Killing For Profit (published 2012 and well worth a read for anyone interested in the subject) states on the final page that "...more than 80 per cent of arrests continue to be those of poachers - low-level hired guns from impoverished villages in Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. They are cannon fodder, easily replaced."
So what's this got to do with photography and photojournalism? Well, a little and a lot. The story is being covered exclusively from the side of the "heroes" defending the rhinos and elephants. Brave men yes, soldiers yes, efficient maybe, effective no, as is clear in the Kruger. I'm yet to see a story that tells me why impoverished Africans are inclined to take the paycheck for ivory. I'm yet to read an article in a national newspaper telling me about the incentives to poach, I am yet to see a photo project telling me about these poachers. The photography being produced is not useful - it perpetuates and justifies what is already going wrong and makes heroes of the soldiers enacting a "just war", something that is incredibly hard to come by nowadays. It also criminalises the poacher, potentially the greatest weapon in turning the tide in this war.
Conservation photographers are moving across into this pseudo war photography and some are doing a fantastic job. It would, however, be great to see a balanced view of the situation and get to understand the other side better. Poachers aren't aliens - there's a reason they do what they do and risk their lives in doing so. The better we understand this the faster we can solve the problems - their problems are inextricably linked to their environment.