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REPORT: Wildlife Poaching & Trafficking Journalism Training Workshop, 9-12 July 2019

The Africa-China Reporting Project (the Project) at Wits Journalism and partners Khetha (WWF) and VukaNow (USAID) organised the Wildlife Poaching & Trafficking Journalism Training Workshop at the Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC) in Mpumalanga Province, South Africa, to enable journalists to improve the quality of reporting on wildlife conservation, environmental sustainability, community development and the dynamics of Africa-China relations within the context of illegal poaching and trafficking of species.

The Workshop brought together 16 journalists from Southern Africa who report on the illegal wildlife trade and a pool of experts and stakeholders from academia, conservation, the media, investigative journalism, and park protection. The aim of the workshop was to provide facilitation for the journalists to investigate the dynamics of the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) in Southern Africa, with an eye on untold stories, on-the-ground perspectives, and its impact on communities that live in proximity with wild reserves and national parks.

WATCH: Wildlife Poaching & Trafficking Journalism Training Workshop 2019

Welcoming and introduction

The workshop was opened and participants were welcomed by USAID VukaNow’s Learning Advisor, Imakando Sinyama, who communicated ground rules. Mr Sinyama was followed by Lara Rall, the Communications Manager of the Khetha Programme at WWF, who shared the Workshop’s agenda and objectives:

  1. To gain an understanding of how the media has been reporting illegal wildlife poaching and trafficking
  2. To gain an understanding of the needs and challenges journalists face when reporting on wildlife crime
  3. To build the capacity of journalists to report on illegal wildlife poaching and trafficking beyond the natural or economic implications
  4. To build networks and contacts between the journalists trained as well as with various media houses
  5. To provide technical support, facilitation and grants, where possible, to participants to produce high quality investigations after training
  6. To develop a best principles/best practice journalism guide for reporting on the illegal wildlife poaching and trafficking

The Southern African journalists pitched their reporting stories throughout the first day in order to engage with the trainers and allow other participants an opportunity to provide feedback to fine-tune their story ideas.

Illegal wildlife trade in Southern Africa and the media

The first presentation was by Christel Antonites, a PhD Candidate at Queensland University of Technology, who conducted an analysis of how the media in South Africa covered the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) in South Africa and Mozambique between January 2014 and June 2019. Christel showed that print media reporting on IWT peaked in the third quarter of 2016, and has steadily dropped since the third quarter of 2018. Rhinos and the Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest national park, dominated reporting in the period analysed.

Christel pointed out that there was little in-depth reporting on IWT, with most stories focused on events at the expense of context and the factors behind the phenomenon. Communities living around national parks, for example, have to contend with complex socio-economic realities that are a result of colonialism, apartheid, and civil war. However, in media reporting on IWT, these are usually just add-ons. She added that the poaching discussion has been racialised and tends to portray the image of Asia rising in Africa, or East Asians encircling Africa’s wildlife. The blame for IWT is usually assigned to several scapegoats who include external actors like China and Vietnam, corrupt officials, and incompetent governments.

Christel said good reporting on IWT is reporting that looks at issues from the perspectives of communities living around national parks and takes effort to emphasize their lived realities and their role in conservation. She added that reporting on IWT could be made richer if it used a broader range of sources with diverse perspectives.

The full report can be found here.

Ian Glenn, a media studies professor at the University of Cape Town (UCT), followed Christel Antonites with a presentation on how not to report IWT. He said the increased exposure of IWT in the media can actually encourage the phenomenon of trafficking and poaching; “similarly, messages intended to discourage poaching have on occasion done the opposite, to encourage further the criminal activities” he said, adding, for example, that an increase in rhino poaching reports has been followed by an increase in rhino poaching incidents. But this is not restricted to just reporting on IWT. Professor Glenn said that whenever the media shines a light on certain issues that are perceived by society to be negative, such as suicide in the United States, there is a slight increase of the perpetration of those issues.

A report on a ring of poachers that has been disrupted could act as a call to other groups to move into the territory. Similarly, a story on techniques being employed to thwart poachers could alert them and help them stay a step ahead. On the other hand, pointing out the [high] black market value of certain wildlife products has the risk of encouraging criminals to enter that trade because they now know how lucrative it is.

Professor Glenn asked the journalists to consider how they would report on an initiative by a wildlife non-profit to introduce artificial rhino horn into the IWF market to disrupt the trade. “How do journalists find the right balance in the face of such questions”, he asked. He also pointed out that one of the weaknesses working in favour of poachers and other actors in IWT is the legal system, which was currently not being “seen or felt”. He illustrated the 10-year gap between arrests and sentencing, which showed the necessity for dedicated courts for IWT perpetrators.

The full presentation can be found here.

The current media business environment presents challenges to reporting on environmental issues, including IWT, said Andrea Weiss, WWF South Africa Media Manager. She said that in South Africa, the media model that depends on advertising to fund operations is under pressure and so is the public broadcaster; this means there are fewer and fewer reporters and resources to allocate to environmental issues. As a result, many newsrooms depend on wire copy.

The only stories that make the cut are those with national appeal.

This is also not helped by the fact that environmental journalism is one of the most dangerous areas of reporting.

There are still some opportunities, Andrea said, adding that many media houses are open to freelance material on environmental issues, although the pay might not be great; and special project reporting, as long as it comes with funding. National newspapers can also depend on local reporters who can offer vital local knowledge.

The full presentation is available here.

Given that East and SouthEast Asia features prominently in discussions on IWT in Southern Africa, Huang Hongxiang, a former Chinese journalist, gave a presentation explaining the demand for wildlife products in Asia. Hongxiang is also the founder of China House, a social enterprise based in Kenya that works to better integrate Chinese people into African communities.

Hongxiang acknowledged that China is one of the biggest markets of IWT, attributing it to the absence of a culture of animal conservation among Chinese communities. He argued that only a very small percentage of Chinese people in Africa were involved in IWT and that, even then, there is a growing awareness of conservation in Chinese communities in Africa. He noted that Chinese people abroad were more likely to encounter IWT than those in China, but mainly as buyers of illegally traded wildlife artifacts and transporters, not as suppliers or hunters.

Chinese people in Africa are almost never involved in poaching.

Hongxiang appealed to reporters to pay attention to the details and complexity of Chinese immigrant societies and entities. “The Chinese in Africa include both state-owned and private businesses, government officials, media, NGOs, etc. Most of them are not integrated in the societies of their host countries, and Chinese embassies do not play as significant a role as imagined”. He said the media should work harder to get voices from the Chinese communities and balance their reporting on issues that involve Chinese communities, adding that many Chinese in Africa who want to get involved in conservation are treated with suspicion and mistrust.

The full presentation can be viewed here.

The second Chinese perspective was given by Karen Zhang, a Hong Kong-based journalist currently with the South China Morning Post. Karen has received funding from the Project to undertake several Africa-China investigations. Her presentation looked at the illegal pangolin trade that starts in African countries and ends in East Asia. She started off by saying that until she started covering pangolin poaching, she was not aware that the animal and its products were such hot commodities in China. She also explained why there was a high demanded in China, “It is because it is a delicacy and is used in traditional Chinese medicine”.

Karen said she was currently coordinating a collaborative reporting project with reporters from ten countries in Africa and East Asia looking at the pangolin trade. Part of the motivation for the project was the difficulty of finding data and information on the trade of wildlife species, and the objective was that the collaborative model would help unearth information from different countries.

The full presentation is available here.

Alastair Nelson, a conservation and organisational development specialist with Conservation Synergies, explored the factors enabling the illegal wildlife trade in Southern Africa. Using theories drawn from criminology and behavioral economics, he pointed out that common assumptions about what drives IWT among members of local communities are misunderstood and efforts to fight the phenomenon are uncertain and not comprehensive.

“The illegal wildlife trade is not driven by poverty alone, equally as important is inequality in society and a mismatch between cultural goals and available opportunities”, he noted. “Deterrent programs are also usually built around principle that humans are rational and can be trusted to choose what’s best for them. However, this fails to address the lack of opportunity in certain sections of society as well as emotional and social needs”. He said the illegality of IWT is also contested across the different sections of South African society.

Alastair said incentives targeting communities that live around national parks should align with conservation incentives for benefits or rewards to be effective. Crime prevention measures should also be seen to be swift, fair rather than slow, uncertain, and arbitrary, he added.

Alastair turned to Mozambique where co-management and shared responsibility between the government and an international NGO has been adopted to fight elephant poaching in Niassa Reserve. “A persistent investigation built on intelligence from the community and other stakeholders led to the arrest of a notorious Tanzanian ivory trafficker operating in the reserve”, he said. This had been helped by changing the leader of the reserve’s law enforcement unit and deploying Mozambique’s Rapid Intervention Unit. The arrest and the changes have led to a steep decline in the number of elephant carcasses from 132 in 2017 to 23 in 2018.

Alastair said several recent captures of trafficked wildlife products at airports outside Africa revealed that criminals were collaborating with government officials. He also pointed out that there was a strong connection between organised crime networks in East Africa and East Asia and IWT; this connection, however, has not received much interest or examination from local journalists.

In his concluding remarks, Alastair advised journalists to question and unpack assumptions behind issues they were pursuing, to focus on the complexities behind every story, and to find the deeper connections between governance, corruption, and other organised crime.

The full presentation is available here.

Special focus on elephants and rhinos

Tom Milliken, the senior advisor on elephants and rhino trade at TRAFFIC, the World Wildlife Fund’s wildlife trade monitoring programme, looked at the prospects of Africa’s elephants and rhinos. He said Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were responsible for the rise in the illegal rhino horn trade between the 1970s and the 1990s, a result of sustained economic expansion and the growth of the middle class and disposable incomes in those societies. But the threat of US sanctions targeting the three countries produced results between 1993 and 2008 when rhino poaching fell to minimal levels and Africa’s rhino population recovered. China, Thailand and Vietnam overtook the three countries in the 1990s as the main markets of the illegal world trade in rhino horn and ivory.

Milliken delved into the history of the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), which was launched in June 1997 at the 10th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Harare, Zimbabwe. ETIS and another CITES programme, Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) are designed to identify trends in illegal trade or illegal killing of elephants, track changes in trends over time, and correlate how they relate to CITES developments.

Milliken said that elephant numbers have been threatened by the illegal ivory trade, which has increased threefold since 2018. The trade is driven by demand in South East Asia, particularly in China and Vietnam. Fighting this trade has several challenges, like how to disrupt trafficking routes (recent large scale seizures show that ivory from Southern, East, and Central Africa is transported via West Africa through Europe to East Asia) and legal domestic markets for ivory that are contributing to poaching and the illegal trade. Other challenges include internet and social media trade channels which are on the increase in many countries and the need for new law enforcement responses.

According to Milliken, rhino poaching in Africa shot up between 2010 and 2017, peaking in the five years to the end of the period. At least 8,363 rhinos have been killed in Africa over the past 12 years for their horns, which are exported to East Asia. In addition, recent findings show that rhino horn is now being processed in South Africa and the finished items exported. “This is because the criminal syndicates behind the rhino horn trade want to avoid detection, and avoid exporting whole horns as much as possible.

The challenges to fighting the illegal trade in rhino horn include South Africa’s inadequate law enforcement system that lets landowners implicated in rhino crime purchase live rhino for hunting purposes. Hunters suspected of engaging in illegal activities have also benefited from poor record keeping at provincial governments, with many of them receiving export permits for rhino trophies. These trophies usually do not reach their intended destinations in Europe. And in many African countries suspects implicated in the illegal rhino horn trade walk away with very lenient sentences, which does little to deter other criminals, said Milliken.

Participants also heard from a section ranger in the Kruger National Park, Richard Sowry. As Christel Antonites’ research indicated, media reporting on IWT involves the Greater Kruger National Park (GKNP) more than any other wild reserve in the country. Richard’s job puts him on the frontline of protecting wildlife in the GKNP.

Sowry’s presentation was a counter-intuitive defence of hunting in wildlife reserves because it brings in money that funds sustainable wildlife conservation and provides employment and associated benefits, thus justifying the allocation of land use to wildlife conservation. Many conservationists frown upon hunting arguing that it is outdated, cruel and against the ethos of conservation.

Sowry pointed out that wildlife reserves in sub-Saharan Africa are in competition against a few popular national parks that attract the most visitors – he named GKNP, Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and Okavango Delta in Botswana – which limits how much they earn from visitors to finance operations and stay economically sustainable. He said one of the ways they can diversify revenue resources and lean less on inadequate visitor numbers is through “responsible hunting”.

He added that hunting is a better use of large tracts of land compared to alternatives such as golf courses. The concern should be whether hunting is done sustainably and ethically, and whether the revenue generated from it is spent responsibly, he said.

Sowry defined ethical hunting as “that which honours the spirit of fair chase and is conducted in a respectful manner in the animal’s natural habit, under free-roaming conditions. The hunters ought to be competent shooters to limit the possibility of wounding the animal.

Sustainable hunting on the other hand targets animals whose removal will have little impact on the survival of animal populations. A male elephant killed at the age of 55, when it is finished with breeding and passing on its genes, is eliminated in a sustainable manner. It also has a high commercial value due to its long tusks. These principles are enshrined in South African law, Sowry noted, which states that no elephant may be hunted from breeding herds and only bull elephants may be hunted.

An activity led by Nelisiwe Vundla, WWF South Africa’s community development and learning lead, looked at the impact of the illegal wildlife trade on local communities living around national parks. Some of the participants were given community roles – these included a reserve manager, subsistence cattle farmer, poacher, successful land claimant, a field ranger, and a field ranger’s widow – and asked to act out a community meeting where locals had several grievances against the park’s policies and how it enforced them. At the end, the other participants were asked to act out as journalists covering the meeting and writing about at least one of the conflicts.

Community field excursion

On the afternoon of Wednesday, 10 July, workshop participants visited a local community near the Southern African Wildlife College to find out how they perceive their role in wildlife conservation and fighting the illegal wildlife trade. Specifically, the visit was to the offices of the chief of the Mnisi Traditional Authority, which oversees the affairs of the Mnisi tribe, a sub-group of the Tsonga nation. Here, the workshop participants met with Hosi Theophilus Magwagwaza Mnisi, the chief of the Mnisi Traditional Council, and other community leaders.

The meeting started off with grievances expressed by Canuel Mnisi, a member of the Mnisi Community Development Forum (MCDF). Canuel said the community lacks piped water and contends with a high rate of unemployment, noting that the park and other stakeholders should support them through skilling projects or helping them set up a community firm that produces for game lodges.

Chief Hosi Theophilus Magwagwaza Mnisi said the community owned an expanse of land in the park on which the Manyeleti Game Reserve sits. The tribe was forced off the land in 1962 by the Apartheid government which confiscated it and turned it into a game reserve for black people, who were not allowed into the Kruger National Park. The community successfully reclaimed the land in 1996, he said, and receives concession fees from the owners of private lodges built in the reserve. He said the community had good relationships with the developers.

The Chief said there was a need for tourism-related skills such as tour guiding so that more of its people are employed in the surrounding reserves. He added that the Wildlife College had helped the community set up an account where it can receive donations from tourists. He said it was in the community’s best interests to support conservation efforts, which means they do not tolerate engaging in IWT.

Technical skills development

Dr Jo Shaw, the manager of WWF South Africa’s rhino programme, was the first presenter on the final day of the workshop and looked at the impact that reporting on the illegal wildlife trade has on different audiences. She asked journalists to always consider what messages they are sending when reporting on a story and its potential impact. For example, a story on the increase in the price of rhino horn will be interpreted differently by a casual reader and someone involved in wildlife crime. 

Participants were also apprised of good story telling by Desmond Latham, an experienced journalist and currently the chief operating officer at Frayintermedia, a communications training firm. He listed several ways reporters can find topics to write about and investigate, and asked the journalists to visualize their proposed investigations and create an info-graphic that tracks sources and angles, and plan responses and follow ups. Desmond said reporters have to be able to visualize their story and its narrative as they develop it.

He added that a good story is quirky, factual, visual, lucid and tangible, utilizes data, and is dramatic but not theatrical. To craft a compelling narrative hook, reporters should first make sure they understand their audience, publishing platforms, and where and how audiences engage with stories. He emphasized the need of humanizing stories, especially if they utilize data, fact-checking before publication and, for investigations, following the money and paying attention to the impact of illicit financial flows on their countries and regions.

The full presentation is available here.

The Workshop also includede two sessions focusing on investigative reporting. Estacio Valoi, an investigative journalist from Mozambique who focuses on environmental problems, took participants through an investigation he did with the British filmmaker, Callum Macrae. The report investigated “Corruption and mysterious deaths at the heart of Mozambique’s lucrative ruby mining industry”. Estacio said he worked to build trust with the community by living among them, but emphasized that each investigation required different skills and approaches. He also pointed journalists to online resources they could use for their investigations, such as the help desk at the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN).

GIJN’s Alastair Otter shared open-source intelligence methods and tools that reporters can utilize to find information. He started by pointing out that one of the essential tools for investigators is Hunchly, a paid online tool that keeps a record of everything an investigator does during a research process, eliminating the need to stop and document everything. He then took participants through the basics of online power searching and listed specialist search engines that can used to find information.

Other techniques and tools mentioned by Alastair were on finding information on companies, finding people online, using social media to find information, keeping tabs on global movements and verifying photos and videos. Alastair singled out BBC Africa Eye’s Anatomy of a Killing as an investigation that had effectively used both digital tools and on-the-ground skills.

The final presentation by Elna de Beer, a technical associate at SAWC was on media ethics. She defined ethics as a system of moral principles affecting how people lead their lives and make decisions, and is concerned with what is good for individuals and society. For ethics to be useful, they need to affect how we behave through the good tools for thinking about moral issues they provide. An ethical person looks beyond their own desires and self-interest and considers other people’s interests and the interests of society, she said.

For that matter, Elna said journalists have to pay attention to how they are perceived by others and how their perception of themselves differs from that picture. She said the core values of journalism – accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity and accountability – should act as an ethical guide for journalists. Putting ethical journalism at the forefront of their work also ensures that journalists are doing their job of public enlightenment properly.

Media Mingle

The closing event of the workshop was the Media Mingle, a cocktail and networking event hosted by the Project at Wits University in Johannesburg on the evening of 12 July 2019.

The Media Mingle was opened by Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism at the Wits Journalism Department. Anton welcomed all guests and Workshop participants, and reflected on the Project’s commitment to supporting journalists who publish on wildlife and environmental sustainability and community engagement. He noted that in 2017 the Project ran the Cross-border Poaching & Trafficking Investigation Grants where crucial investigations into wildlife species, particularly the threats to the pangolin, were supported. These investigations influenced the hosting of the Africa-China Wildlife Conservation Conference at Wits in 2018 where the Project and partners Global Max Media Group, China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, Nature Guardian Wildlife Conservation Centre, China House and the Chinese Embassy convened with wildlife conservation leaders and Chinese community leaders to discuss issues and solutions for wildlife poaching and trafficking. 

Anton emphasized the important role of journalists to inform the public and government, influence policy making on wildlife conservation, raise poaching and trafficking awareness, and promote environmental sustainability and community engagement.

Anton was followed by Lara Rall, who welcomed back the journalists from the Southern African Wildlife College and gave a report of the main activities and topics covered during the training.

A keynote presentation was delivered by Kimon de Greef, journalist and author of Poacher: Confessions from the Abalone Underworld, an inside account of South Africa’s illicit abalone trade, a lawless underwater treasure hunt for a marine snail prized as a delicacy in China. Kimon spoke about why he wrote his book and the abalone trade in the Western Cape and also gave a number of investigative reporting tips to the journalists.

Barry van Wyk, the Project’s Coordinator, and Steven Johnson, Chief of Party at USAID VukaNow, then awarded the journalists their certificates for successfully completing the training workshop.

The cocktail and networking event brought the week-long training workshop to a close.

Raymond Mpubani is a journalist at Uganda Business News

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