Dodging snakes, thorns and wildlife police, a hunter in Western Equatoria swaps traditional traps for guns in his bid to catch big game.
Sometimes Benjamin Wani Khamis spends a month poaching in the Southern National Park and returns home to find his wife has shifted to another man’s house.
Khamis, a soft-spoken man in his late 30s, says hunting in the national park is risky and hard. I really don’t enjoy it but my conditions force me to track down wild animals,” he says.
I admire wildlife officials. Park animals don’t even run away from them because of their uniforms – and they do not raise a gun against them.”Khamis spends much of his life roaming the bushy environment of the 20,000 square kilometre-wide national park, on the lookout for wildlife. Typically he sets out at 5:30am, heading for the swamps where animals congregate to feed.
Armed with guns, he and other poachers track the wind direction, as animals are highly sensitive to human scent. Khamis and his friends often trek great distances lugging a bundle of smoked wild animal meat weighing up to 25 kilos.
He says he is constantly on high alert: Even selling smoked meat is dangerous because you could be imprisoned if the wildlife authority catches you. As well as park officials, there are natural threats like thorns and snakes.
It is easy to get lost while walking long distances in search of prey,” he says, adding that he often gets caught far from home in heavy rainfall during the wet season.
Without any other option, he plans to continue to poach so that his children can attend school and get medicines. He describes rare upbeat moments after he or another hunter have killed and sold an animal. Then they buy alcohol to share.
Before guns came along, Khamis used to trap animals by digging five-meter-wide holes and camouflaging them with grass. He and his father would stab any animal, which fell into the trap. They caught mostly antelope, but also elephant, buffalo, warthog, hippo, rhino, cheetah and leopard.
But in the 1980s, he and many others in his community switched to using guns, which sped up the chase. Big animals raise more money at the local market. There he sells his meat alongside others from the local community, which has long poached for a living.
Some people still use traditional methods like a trap or a net and a bow and arrow, sometimes chasing injured animals for kilometres.
Khamis dons long-sleeved green or dark coloured clothes to resemble a patrolling wild life officer in the hope he will not intimidate the animals. He prowls barefoot through the park, which in places is completely dark because of the thick bush.
In the future he would like to work for the wildlife authority in the park. I admire wildlife officials,” he says. Park animals don’t even run away from them because of their uniforms – and they do not raise a gun against them.”