Fighting Poachers With Education, Not Guns

A family of elephants walk through Kruger National Park.

A family of elephants walk through Kruger National Park.

Vince Barkas, a grizzled high-school dropout with a sharp tongue and piercing blue eyes, is at war in the grasslands and savannas here in northeast South Africa.

The war is fought at multiple levels with elements that define this complex nation: iconic wildlife being poached, loss of habitat, race, poverty, overpopulation. In essence, it’s humans versus nature. And hope, where it exists, lies in basic education and jobs in tourism.

“Working with communities and the actual poachers,” Barkas tells me amid a cluster of offices and meetings rooms, “have saved more wildlife than any guard with a gun in the bush.”

For now, reality runs ahead of hope. Since 1992, Barkas has put guards with guns in the bush. He runs ProTrack Anti-Poaching Unit, which patrols the sprawling private game reserves that border the western edge of Kruger National Park, one the largest and best-known parks for large animals in the world. ProTrack has 300 employees, 140 of whom wear camouflage uniforms with bulletproof vests. They carry automatic weapons.

Rhinos are the poachers’ target of choice. Their keratin horns sell for more than $4,000 per ounce, making the value of gold seem paltry by comparison, at $1,200 per ounce. The ivory tusks of African elephants are still in demand, and the bones from lions, hyenas, and vultures have a black market value all their own.

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