Getting Poachers to Give Up Their Guns in Zambia

This post is a condensed version of an article in the August issue of The Solutions Journal
By: Dale Lewis

Stanwell Chirwa is 42 years old with a history of poaching wild animals in the Luangwa Valley, Zambia. He admits to killing 11 elephants, more than 20 buffalo, kudu and eland. Farming had been his main livelihood, but poor yields and low market prices pushed him into poaching. He was arrested once, but was acquitted in court. On a second occasion, Chirwa was apprehended but managed to escape. He knew his luck would run out someday, and his family would be far worse off if he did not stop poaching.

Persistent hunger and poverty drive many small-scale farmers living near the wildlife-rich Luangwa Valley to poach. And law enforcement alone can’t stop them. It is too expensive and logistically difficult for the government to police the over 1,500 miles of park boundary to keep poachers out of the park. Animal counts across the Luangwa Valley indicate that from the 1970s to the 1990s, elephant numbers fell by more than 50%. More recent surveys show that wildlife has disappeared from parts of the valley where animals used to live. Researchers estimate that during the late 1990s poaching in the valley claimed the lives of 5,000 animals each year.

One day in 2008, a farm extension officer working for a company called Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) approached Chirwa and explained that COMACO worked with small-scale farmers to improve yields and increase farm prices if practices such as poaching were abandoned. The officer managed to convince Chirwa to surrender his gun and join a COMACO producer group.

Chirwa’s life is very different today. He has since handed over all of his guns and earns a good living selling his soybeans, peanuts, and honey from more than 15 beehives, making far more money than he did as a poacher. He refuses to pass on his hunting skills to his children and has helped identify 12 other hunters in his home area, convincing them to abandon hunting in favor of the opportunities COMACO offers. He is currently advising the local chief on the development of a wildlife conservation area on community land outside the established national parks.

Chirwa’s story represents the core mission of COMACO: using markets to combat poverty and hunger and to promote conservation. As one of 684 former poachers working with the organization, he is part of an exciting new trend in Zambian conservation, with farm plows replacing guns and game meat. Thousands of other farmers who once relied on snaring wildlife to meet food shortfalls have surrendered their snares. Most have achieved self-reliance in food production. For all the farmers who comply with prescribed farming practices, the company offers a premium market price for purchased commodities. Products are sold under the brand name It’s Wild! Today, COMACO is working with over 45,000 small-scale farming families, exceeding $2.4 million in sales.

Around the world, a growing number of conservationists are attempting a new approach to conservation: helping people in order to save wildlife. The basic argument is that for conservation projects to succeed, local people need to be on board. But one of the major challenges facing this new field is deciding how best to incentivize conservation at the household level. Previous attempts in Zambia relied on tourism-derived income that was channeled through community institutions. Typically, there was not enough money to have a meaningful impact on individuals in the community, or the money was used in ways that did not effectively address food security and household income. While the conservation community increasingly appreciated that food security and income must be linked with conservation results, it lacked a business model that could effectively drive and sustain these relationships. We think COMACO provides that model.

COMACO started in 2002, the product of over two decades of conservation research conducted by a team of Zambia-based conservationists working for the Wildlife Conservation Society. The goal was to develop a strategy for protecting wildlife and habitat in the Luangwa Valley, one of Africa’s last great wildlife landscapes. COMACO’s strategy is to offer farmers a higher market value for their farm commodities, if produced in ways that reduce soil loss, prevent unnecessary land clearing, and decrease such coping behaviors as poaching and charcoal making. To sustain these costs, the company manufactures farm-based commodities into processed, value-added food products and markets them as healthy, organic, and fair-priced.

Results have shown that farmer behaviors toward conservation can change dramatically when guided by market incentives and supported with the right training and inputs. With the help of a network of local staff and lead farmers, who provide year-round training and support to COMACO member farmers, tens of thousands of small-scale farmers have significantly improved their yields by adopting such new skills as making compost fertilizer, using a near-zero tillage method that reduces drought risk, growing new food crop varieties, and applying cover crops and agroforestry species to increase soil nutrients. This farmer extension approach is cost-effective and helps COMACO remain financially sustainable.

Maureen Zimba tells it best. She started selling rice to COMACO three years ago and earns over $500 annually. “I do not have to worry about my son getting into trouble poaching or my daughter falling into prostitution. They are both safe in school because my husband and I can now pay their school fees.”

By attacking the root causes of poaching in Zambia, COMACO has proven that conservation is not just good for wildlife; it can be good for people and good for business. And the farmers in Luangwa Valley have proven that, with the right market incentives, they can be good stewards of the land.

This post is a condensed version of an article in the August issue of The Solutions Journal, based at the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University. For a full copy of the article please see

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