Africa fears may deal blow to fight against poaching

With all the publicity surrounding Ebola and ISIS and the effect these have on tourism to Africa, the only questions being asked and answered focus on our business and our industry, specifically here in North America. Of course, all of us outfitters are answering the questions we are being asked; however, I am not so sure these are relevant. In the recent article "Despite distance, Ebola fears have safari clients hesitating" [Sept. 29], the only topics being talked about by each person interviewed, myself included, is our focused viewpoint, or the distance from West Africa to London, Cape Town or Nairobi. 

While I was pleased to see the overall theme for that article focused on education, it was not until after I hung up the phone with [Michelle Baran, the article's writer] that I realized something very important had only been lightly touched. The first person I thought of was a gentleman named Peter Andrew.

Peter is a pastry chef at Singita Faru Faru. I met him just as he was starting in tourism over 10 years ago. Peter came from humble beginnings and was not afforded access to a quality education. Therefore, the easiest field for him to get into to provide for himself was poaching. He could barely read or write, but he knew how to use a gun. Yet Peter chose to stop doing what was easy to do and start doing what he thought was right -- he joined the tourism industry. Today he has excelled in his career.

For every story you hear of a former poacher giving up the gun to join tourism, there are 100 more voiceless success stories that happen every day. Yet demand for illegal ivory is so entrenched that we still, after all these successes, face an uphill battle to stop poaching.

Three years ago, we talked about the loss of 30 elephants a day to poaching. According to the World Wildlife Fund, today that figure approaches 100 elephants a day. The fate of rhinos is even worse. The only thing standing in the way of the complete extinction of elephants and rhinos in Africa is tourism. Specifically, the right kind of tourism that involves local communities.

If we focus solely on our fears and self-interests, then we have just signed the death sentence for every elephant and rhino in Africa.

The tourism industry makes up at least 10% of any one country's gross domestic product in Africa. Think about how many jobs and how much money that represents to any country. The governments of many of these countries are closing their borders to the Ebola-infected areas of Africa. But they have not abandoned them. They are supporting the fight to stop the epidemic through financial means, or by sending their brightest minds through organizations such as Doctors Without Borders. But how can that continue to be funded if the tourism revenue stops?

I was born in Kenya. My father was born in Kenya. My mother was born in Sudan. My wife's grandparents were born in Uganda and were forced out of the country with the guns of Idi Amin's regime pointed at their backs. Africa is not my passion, it is a rich and deep part of my heritage.

We have to choose right now. Either we remain afraid of Africa or we educate ourselves. We guide our clients instead of selling them. We teach them about the vital change they represent when they go on a safari the right way and pay a fair price for this remarkable experience. If we don't, then Peter Andrew and everyone who has come before or after him will simply return to what they know.

Are we willing to give back all the gains we have made? Are we going to stand by and watch the extinction of not just the elephant and the rhino but countless other species that will be caught in this tug-of-war?

We must challenge what is portrayed in the media when they are wrong or misguided. We must stand up as the voice of reason and education.

I believe the life of every elephant and rhino in Africa now rests in our collective hands. I believe the livelihood of everyone like Peter Andrew looking for a better future rests in our hands. When I look at my children, I see that we have a duty to be honest with them and teach them where we went wrong as well as give them the tools to help fix it. My children inspire me every day to do the best I can, and even on my darkest days, they give me hope that we as a global community can rewrite the future.

Ashish Sanghrajka, president
Big Five Tours & Expeditions

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