Tourism, labour and the rhino poaching crisis in South Africa

By Stasja Koot, 12 December 2017

In the Kruger to Canyon (K2C) region, South Africa, there are two big phenomena of which the interactions have so far hardly been researched: tourism and the rhino poaching crisis. Based on four field trips to South Africa in 2016/17, totalling about 3 months, I have investigated these links, and here I wish to present some first ideas. In particular, I wish to explain one important tension that I observed; the role of labour in tourism and how this is related to the rhino poaching crisis.


The Kruger to Canyon (K2C) region

The K2C region provides for an enormous amount of tourist lodges, most of them in the upper-class segment. This region borders the Kruger National Park to the East and the Lower Drakensberg Mountains to the West. My research concentrates mostly on the nature reserves to the west of Kruger National Park. Most of these reserves are private:

Reserves, map

The private nature reserves (in dark green)


What is not visible on this map, is that there are thousands of people living in the areas next to the reserves. The differences between life on and off the reserves are enormous. On the reserves, tourists come from all over the world to see the big five, to gaze at a pre-imagined ‘Africa’ based on various media and travel outlets back home. This is mostly an African natural landscape void of people, but full of wildlife. Here, tourists come to see the charismatic megafauna of Africa, in particular the ‘Big 5’ (lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and rhino). In contrast, life off the reserves differs from rural to peri-urban to urban. Most people living off the reserves have never been on the inside of the nature reserves, unless they work there. Moreover, most of them have not seen wildlife in their lives, and if they have, this is often based on experiences in which the wildlife was mostly a threat, such as elephants or lions that have escaped the Kruger National Park. Of course, in a situation of escape people are also keen to feed on the (edible) animals as well, as happened early 2016 (Shongwe 2016). In addition to this very different ecological relation between people and animals, there is also an enormous socio-economic inequality between life on and off the reserves, which can for a large part be explained as a result of colonialism, apartheid and the recent neo-liberalisation of the South African economy in a very unstable political climate where corruption thrives.


The rhino poaching crisis and responses at the reserves

In South Africa, rhino poaching has skyrocketed since 2008, most notably in the Waterberg Area, KwaZulu Natal and most prominently in the Kruger National Park and surrounding areas, including the K2C area. The K2C private nature reserves’ most prominent response has been to increase security measures, generally by using military tactics, a phenomenon that has also been called ‘green militarization’ (Lunstrum 2014). It is generally acknowledged that the tourism industry plays an important role in the rhino poaching crisis, for good and ill. For example, people working in the industry can infiltrate and share important information with poachers; tour guides can simply send information about the location of rhino’s with their cell phones or lodge managers can be tempted to sell rhino horn. In fact, there have been examples in South Africa of lodge owners who have been arrested for their involvement in rhino poaching. Of course, the opposite can also happen; tour guides can also support in providing information for initiatives such as the larger GKEPF programme, which is a security programme that expands all the way from the K2C reserves into Kruger and parts of Mozambique. GKEPF stands for Greater Kruger Environmental Protection Foundation, which is a collaboration that originates from the K2C reserves with a strong focus on increasing security measures against poaching, mostly by using military tactics. This strategy is often defended as a short-term necessity to save the rhino before it is too late, but it has a big disadvantage too: because of the number of poachers and armed guards dying, it generally does not create any long-term, sustainable support for nature conservation among the people from the communities. Quite the contrary; they often feel excluded from the benefits that are created through the commodification of the charismatic African animals (e.g. via tourism), and people dying for these animals generally does not allow for an increase in support for nature conservation. In fact, some people have explained their doubts to me whether tourism is not the driver of the whole problem; after all, would all this money and energy be put into something if it were not for the commercial value it currently contains? In the end, without the animals in this area we can safely assume that there would hardly be any tourism left.

20171101_134536Tourists are informed about rhino poaching at the Balule Nature Reserve

Photo: Stasja Koot

In addition to the dominant security response, various other initiatives take place at the reserves in which the tourism industry is involved; for example, there are initiatives to support community education, in particular on nature conservation (especially amongst children), vegetable gardens have been created and a lecture for tourists about the Black Mamba’s (an all-female unarmed anti-poaching unit) can be attended by tourists. Moreover, people can even join a veterinary surgeon to support him/her to dart rhino’s and consequently chip them, which is done to collect information on the whereabouts of the rhino’s and potentially smuggled horns in the future. Another important response is by helping to translocate rhino’s from private game reserves in South Africa to other places, mostly within Africa but today rhinos have even been translocated as far as Texas, US, and Australia. By spreading rhinos geographically the chance of them becoming extinct severely diminishes. Wilderness Safari’s, for example—one of the biggest upper class private tourism operators in Southern Africa—cooperates with the Botswanan government, in particular the Botswana Defense Force (BDF); military transport planes and soldiers assist with these rhino relocations. Interestingly, at Wilderness Safari’s, this has become an important element of a very special luxury tourist itinerary in which the tourists can experience “[e]ight adrenaline-fueled days rescuing rhinos in South Africa and Botswana” (Glowczewska 2015). Tourists start off at a safari lodge from one of the K2C reserves, where they receive an introduction to nature conservation, but the accumulation of facts about rhinos and other wildlife continues throughout the trip. For the last three days of the luxurious safari, tourists stay at a safari camp in Botswana, where they can experience a (relocated) rhino capture from a helicopter, monitor their whereabouts and health with tracking devices or the release of rhinos back into the wild. The trip is clearly not targeted at the average backpacker’s budget; it costs US$ 18.655,- per person and a tax-deductible requirement of US$ 25.000,- per person for the Wilderness Wildlife Trust to Rhino Conservation Botswana (Glowczewska 2015).


A relocated rhino being released in Botswana



Tourist labour

During my interviews with a large variety of nature conservationists, lodge owners, managers, labourers and community members, an important difference that came up was about the perception on tourist labour. The issue of labour, specifically jobs in the tourism industry, came up regularly as a potential solution for the rhino poaching crisis. In short, the discourse goes as follows: the establishment of more and more tourism ventures at the reserves will create more jobs. Because people can get jobs, this will in the end reduce the chances of them becoming involved in rhino poaching, because they now receive a decent salary. Generally, people working in the tourism industry tend to be focused on the rhino poaching crisis as one of the biggest contemporary problems in the area, often framed as a very explicit crisis within a much larger threat to the overall biodiversity (with the expectation that lions, elephants and pangolin are the next species to become extinct due to poaching after the rhino). This also shows, for example, because many of the community projects are aimed at children and nature conservation based on the idea that they have to be educated to love nature. I have been told by various people that it is important that ‘they’, meaning the people of the communities, need to start understanding why wildlife is important for their future, explicitly referring to the jobs (mostly in tourism) they can potentially have if wildlife would ‘survive’. However, there is a clear counter argument coming from the community members’ side, which goes against the creation of jobs through tourism. This does not mean that people do not want to work in tourism, in fact many do, but the amount of jobs are simply very limited so there is lots of competition and it is very unlikely that in the long run tourism will provide enough jobs to uplift a substantial number of people from the communities. Historically, the change from farms to tourism has meant that the area has reduced the demand for labour overall. Furthermore, most community members tend to have the lower paid jobs, such as cleaners or gate keepers. In South Africa these jobs are not very well paid and it is therefore doubtful whether these salaries will truly reduce people’s potential involvement in poaching. Another effect of working in tourism is that labourers get to know the stark contrasts between their own lifestyles and these of the tourists at the lodges, where luxurious products, plenty of food, swimming pools, health spas and massage and beauty parlours are idealised as a lifestyle. To achieve (elements of) such a lifestyle, some of the labourers might be tempted to get involved in poaching.

Altogether, as much as tourism can be seen as a solution to the rhino poaching crisis, it is also part of the problem and the linkages are a lot more complex than what one can see at first sight.

Glowczewska, K. 2015. Eight Adrenaline-Fueled days Rescuing Rhinos in South Africa and Botswana. In Town & Country, 10 September

Lunstrum, E. 2014. Green Militarization: Anti-Poaching Efforts and the Spatial Contours of Kruger National Park. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104(4):816-832.

Shongwe, B. 2016. ‘Kill the elephants, now!’ Mpumalanga villagers feast on Kruger escapees. In Times Live. 25 January.


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