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04-20-2010, 09:52 PM
Poachers' protector wins environmental prize

Thuli Brilliance Makama is not everyone's idea of an environmental hero.

A lawyer in Swaziland she has made her name not as a conservationist but by investigating the deaths of suspected poachers. She has been named as among the winners of prestigious environmental award the US$150,000 Goldman Prize.

Leading the Swazi green group Yonge Nawe, she has worked with local communities to help them to file lawsuits against the kingdom's flourishing private game parks.

While the prize committee said it had made the award on the basis of her victory to open up Swaziland's Environment Authority to public participation, Makama is better known for standing up to private game reserves whose rangers have been accused of indiscriminate killings of poachers.

By defending poachers, she could, arguably, be presented as an anti-conservationist, but that would ignore the complexities of African politics.

While half of the one million Swazi population lives in poverty the kingdom has become a popular safari and big-game hunting destination.

Swaziland's parks are controlled by a private company, Big Game Parks, whose rangers enjoy immunity from prosecution as long as they are "protecting game".

The prize is seen by some as an affront to the man they claim to be the father of conservation in Swaziland, the owner and operator of Big Game Parks, Ted O'Reilly.

The son of a British soldier who settled in the area after the Boer War, he persuaded a previous king to establish parks to protect wildlife against poachers and commercial farmers.

BGP has a strong record on wildlife protection but its tactics remain controversial. In 1992, with the help of the South African police, O'Reilly tracked suspected rhino poachers to a nearby hotel.

Two of them were killed in the ensuing shoot-out.

Local communities, many of whom were moved off their land by expanding parks, have complained of an increase in numbers of people shot or killed for suspected poaching.

The 1992 case has been included in a suit filed against the company by Makama, who says that as many as 50 local people have been killed since BGP was given immunity in 1997.

O'Reilly insists that without his company Swaziland's parks would not exist and that his rangers act within the law. "Very similar numbers of rangers have been killed in the line of duty by poachers as vice versa."

The award-winning lawyer insists that ordinary people are struggling to survive on the fringes of the parks, depending on food aid and killing the occasional antelope.

Yesterday, the Goldman organisation said: "For many years, these communities have endured brutality and abuse at the hands of armed reserve owners, and a number of suspected poachers have been killed in the name of conserving the fenced-in wildlife."

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