Element writer Jamie Joseph is currently in Africa on a 14-week mission 'Solving poverty saves wildlife'. She is presently based in Zambia's Luangwa Valley, researching a pioneering poacher-to-farmer transformation blueprint, which she believes has the potential to scale right across Africa. She fills her days with the men that have, in their past, spent years killing the elephants she strives to protect.
The dry September heat sticks to my clothes and I stare at the warm water, until finally I bring the plastic bottle to my parched mouth and take a sip. It's been many days since I tasted anything refreshing, but I dare not complain. I know how lucky I am, while people around me are literally starving to death and quenching their thirst with contaminated water.
The village visits are all the same; dusty, no commerce, no internet, no phones, no TV - no communication with the outside world. I get out of the vehicle and the children stare at me as if I'm some sort of alien; white skin, straight blonde hair, the littlest ones are always the first to bravely reach out and touch me. One week into my assignment, 40 hours' drive time with community conservation visionaries, time spent in a dozen villages that all border game-managed areas and national parks, and I'm now more certain than ever that tackling poverty really can save elephants from extinction.
All the transformed ivory poachers I interview are eager to tell me their story. They're proud of their new life as an organic farmer, the way they lead the charge in managing human-wildlife conflict, and the freedom that comes with redemption. For all of these men, this new life began when they were approached by the trusted and respected chief of their village with an offer almost too good to be true: Surrender your weapon and COMACO will teach you livelihood skills such as bee keeping and sustainable farming of peanut butter, soy and rice. Feed your families and sell the surplus to COMACO under their retail brand It's Wild.
Few turn down the offer, and less than 5% return to poaching. In the last 12 years COMACO has transformed more than 1500 poachers in the Luangwa Valley, and, together with local wildlife authorities, has helped to protect 350,000 hectares in community-owned conservation areas. Nowadays it is rare to hear the crack of a rifle. Elephant populations have bounced back, as has small game, with more than 80,000 snares surrendered through the COMACO programme.
Thompson Tembo, one of the original recruits, is regarded as one of the most notorious Zambian ivory poachers, ever. As a child he was raised by his father to hunt, and he is known especially for his ability to use 'juju' (black magic) on elephants, whereupon the grey giants would literally fall at his feet after he shot them at point-blank range.
He's not expecting me when I arrive at his hut in the village, but he pulls up two wooden stools as soon as I introduce myself. "Can you help me with my mission by sharing your story?" I ask.
"Traders from Tanzania and Malawi would come to my village and give us an order of how many tusks they wanted," says Thompson, remembering his dark days. "But we never knew where the ivory was being smuggled."
This doesn't surprise me. Not one poacher I have met has known where the ivory ultimately ends up. When I explain to them that most of the ivory gets smuggled into China they give me that 'penny dropping' look. African governments continue to allow Chinese companies to plunder their finite natural resources.
Thompson tells me very little money was ever exchanged for ivory, and of all the ex poachers I have interviewed, only the ones transformed very recently managed to walk away with as much as US$500 for a pair of large tusks, which would then be split between the poaching gang.
"We mostly bartered clothing, and basic food stuffs such as salt and sugar," says Thompson." To other people in the community this was a sign of wealth because we were able to meet our basic needs."
In China, owning ivory is a sign of status. On the black market a pair of raw tusks will fetch six figures, and that same ivory carved can carry a price tag of over a million dollars in retail stores. Poverty continues to be an exploitable phenomenon, while the vast majority of the world is under the illusion that the poachers in Africa are getting rich.
But since Thompson gave up poaching he really is living his blue sky dream. He tells me he now has two vehicles which he obtained through profits from farming, six grinding mills, and he's even looking at buying a tractor next year.
"I think of all the elephants I have killed, and it gives me so much heartbreak," he says, changing the subject as a wave of emotion suddenly engulfs him. "I feel like crying when I think of how many elephants Zambia might have now if those animals had survived. My greatest hope is that other poachers can look at me now and be inspired to build a better, honest life."