A small herd of cattle cross in front of us as we we walk down the dirt road to visit another family in Welverdiend, a community adjacent to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Joseph, our guide and the son of an InDuna, or village headman, points out a fairly non-descript house. Like other houses in the neighborhood, it is made of concrete cinder blocks and sits in the middle of a dirt yard. Joseph informs us that a known rhino poacher lives inside. The man was arrested for poaching and spent a few months in jail, but has sinced been released. We ask if people in the community care that he poaches. “At first people refused to greet him,” Joseph replies. “But no one really cares anymore.”
In South Africa’s low-veld—where we are conducting our fieldwork—there are flashy billboards, a myriad of wildlife charities and even an entire three-day music festival all dedicated to protecting the rhinoceros. To show sympathy to the cause, residents in the area fasten red plastic rhino horns to the fronts of their vehicles. Just the other day we oversaw a ceremony for bride wealth negotiations, and each door inside the family’s home displayed a sticker preaching salvation for the species. It’s common for the war on poaching to touch many different elements of life down here. For example, certain reserves prohibit tourists from geo-tagging their rhino photographs on Instagram to prevent potential poachers from locating the creatures.
Our project, Through the Prides, documents the history of interaction between lions and people who trek on foot through Kruger National Park from Mozambique. Kruger, one of Africa’s most significant wildlife viewing attractions, also serves as a migratory route for those seeking safety or employment in a new country. The project examines the plight of impoverished villagers in western Mozambique and the conditions that force them across the Kruger fence. In the process, we have started to see how complicated the relationship between humans and “wild” spaces within South Africa can be.
Through our research we continue to encounter how efforts to fight rhino poaching have affected illegal immigration into South Africa. Welverdiend is a community of mainly immigrants who traveled on foot across the park to escape the Mozambican Civil War. The war phased out in the early 1990s, yet immigration continued into the next decade as Mozambicans sought employment in South Africa’s mines or citrus fields, or traveled to visit family and friends living across the border.
While meeting with residents of Welverdiend, however, it was evident that this dynamic has recently changed. Those we spoke with emphasized repeatedly that people no longer crossed the park on foot, even though conditions in Mozambican border towns such as Massingir and Maplanguene continue to decay.
“They shoot there [in Kruger] because they think you are hunting animals,” says Welverdiend resident Alice Ndlovu, who crossed through Kruger three times when she was younger. “That’s why people are not walking.”
The anti-poaching souvenirs ubiquitous in clothing boutiques and grocery stores in this area serve as clues to the dramatic decline in crossings. Increased security in response to high rates of rhino poaching have hardened the borders between South Africa and Mozambique. As a result, fewer people choose to travel on foot through Kruger in fear of being mistaken for poachers. The Mozambicans passing through Kruger are no longer seen as refugees of a bloody war, or victims of extreme poverty. Instead, they can be perceived as potential rhino-killers. Only those with passports may cross legally through border posts.
David Bunn, whose research has explored this topic for over a decade, says “In recent years, especially the last five years with the massive increase in rhino poaching, this has changed into a battleground where people who come through are no longer presumed to be refugees but automatically have suspicious attention focused on them.”
Back in Welverdiend, Joseph led us to the home of a very old woman. Like many villagers, she lives in a small rectangular compound surrounded by a fence made of tree branches and tangled wire. She was prostrate in front of her cement block house, lying on various colored fabrics. As we approached to greet her, she sat up slowly and took out a tin of “snuff” or rolling tobacco, then placed a pinch into her nose and inhaled. The use of snuff is common in the area, typically as a product used to pay respect to ancestors.
The elderly woman walked through Kruger many years ago. She does not know how to count, so she couldn’t tell us when she walked or how old she was when she started the journey. Like many other people we have spoken to, she said that people no longer walk through the park. In some cases, she said, the threat of being shot at by anti-poaching groups deters people from crossing on foot. After a minute, she spoke quietly to our translator, who informed us that one of the woman’s young relatives was recently shot in Kruger by anti-poaching officials. She will be absent for her relative’s funeral because she can no longer pass through the park to visit family in Mozambique like she used to.