Poachers-turned-Protectors in Zambia

Poachers turned Protectors Photo
WCS conservationists train former poachers in trades in exchange for the poachers’ firearms and snares.
Julie Larsen Maher©WCS

Hidden under brush, snares are silent, indiscriminate killers of wildlife. The constricting wires choke or seriously injure just about any animal that crosses their path, including wildebeests, zebras—even elephants. These wounded or dead animals sometimes attract lions, wild dogs, and other large carnivores, which can then become entangled in other traps lying nearby. Snarewear is a line of jewelry that is taking snares out of Zambia’s wild places and placing them decoratively on the wrists, ankles, and necks of villagers and tourists.

In 2002, WCS-Zambia established COMACO (Community Markets for Conservation Co-op), a sort of “green workforce” among Luangwa’s rural communities. COMACO provides alternative livelihoods to former poachers. Among the alternatives is loading their guns with chili powder instead of bullets to guard agricultural lands from crop-raiding elephants.


Most of the poaching taking place in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley is driven by hunger. Along with periodic crop failures and weather crises, the area’s tobacco and expanding cotton industry has been affecting the region’s food supply. Much of the land that formerly produced dinner now yields inedible commodities. Conflict between farmers and elephants is also a problem. While COMACO has been very successful selling agricultural commodities through local outposts, meeting consumer demand overseas for Snarewear in a cost-effective manner has proven problematic.


  • Halt poaching for meat in Zambia’s wildlife-rich Luangwa Valley by training former poachers in sustainable farming practices and other skills that benefit their livelihoods.
  • Improve the local economy by bolstering the community members’ business skills in creating and selling valuable products.
  • Build prosperous trading relationships with rural communities in exchange for learning and applying better farming and land-use practices.

What WCS is Doing

Since 2002, WCS scientists have been training former poachers in trades that include farming, beekeeping, chili-blasting, and carpentry. In exchange, the poachers have turned in more than 800 firearms and 40,000 snares. About 90 percent of the participating poachers graduate the program and find alternative livelihoods. Firearm regulations require the collected guns be handed over to the Zambian government. With the help of a Zambian traditional jeweler, a group of women were recruited to turn the piles of snare wire into jewelry. They handpick the wires and adorn them with “beads”—seeds from local trees. The recycled snare-wire jewelry is capturing the attention of villagers and tourists passing through the COMACO store at Mfuwe Airport.

Communities are hiring a growing number of reformed poachers to patrol rice fields with muzzle-loaders packed with chili powder, in a non-lethal approach to repel elephants from crops. From about 100 feet away, the guards blast clouds of chili smoke into the air. The elephants make a hasty retreat, hopefully leaving with a strong lesson not to venture into those fields again.

For more information: www.itswild.org.

From the Newsroom

Green Business Grows in ZambiaAugust 22, 2011

WCS’s COMACO program in Zambia transforms poachers into organic farmers, benefitting local communities and wildlife alike. A new study documents the program’s growing success.

Snareware: Blight into BeautyMarch 4, 2008

In many parts of the world, procuring dinner can be a daily struggle. A nose for business is not just for the savvy—it’s a survival skill.

Snarewear, A New Eco-TrendJuly 12, 2007

It’s more than a fashion statement. The latest trend in African jewelry design takes its raw material from snares once used to trap wildlife. And its salesmen are the poachers who laid the snares.

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