The story stuck in my mind like a burr on a wool jacket. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I was chatting with a friend who I knew had been on a photography trip to big game country in Africa. That same trip has been in the back of my mind for years, so I asked him for some advice.
“I’d go back in a second,” he said. “No other trip compares to Africa.”
He suggested March and the end of the dry season to insure that animals would be drawn to the watering holes.
I wondered about the accommodations.
“No problem,” he replied. “The hotels are first rate. Out in the bush, the tents are on platforms, each with its own bathroom. All the furniture is mahogany. The travel is done in jeeps. Anyone out of the jeep is considered a ‘meal.’”
With all the political turmoil in Africa, I also asked about the safety factor. Did he feel safe?
“In certain parts, yes. Other parts are better avoided. As for the camps themselves, we were surrounded by armed guards.”
And here’s where the story comes in.
The conversation turned to a description of the camps — those raised tents, surrounded by the armed guards at night to, one would think, keep away any dangerous animals. Lions come to mind.
But it was more than that. In the incident in question, my friend had heard a commotion behind the camp. He decided to take a look, but he was immediately stopped by one of the guards.
“You don’t want to go back there.”
Then a shot rang out. A poacher had been executed.
“That stopped me in my tracks,” he commented. “I was horrified.”
“If you poach, you get shot. The animals are their future,” he explained of the policy of protecting the endangered species that are responsible for drawing all the tourists and their money to an area desperate for income. It was the harsh reality.
I thought about this for days. Was the decision made after a trial? Or was it on-the-spot? Who had the authority to carry out such an order? Any guard? Who was the executed? Young or old? Single or with a family? Motivated by greed or need? Did he beg for mercy? What was done with the body? Was it returned to the family, or tossed in a hole? Was the news spread as a warning to others? Did that work? How often is this done? Would a less drastic punishment stop poaching?
The emotions ran from morbid curiosity to abject horror.
Societies differ in values, customs and legal procedures. I thought of the law of the Old West in our own history in which cattle rustlers were strung up or shot by ranchers, sheriffs or a posse of deputies. In different times and circumstances, are different courses of action called for? Up to and including the killing in war?
I thought of the disparity between well-to-do and Third World economies. How are we to judge the latter? That would be too easy from afar.
I thought of the balance between an endangered species and a human life. How does one kill an elephant, just to saw off the tusks? How does one do that in good conscience? Yet, how does one just shoot another human being?
Law is essential in the relationships between the individuals in a society. A line must be drawn between the often conflicting rights of individuals for the good of the whole — “where your fist meets my nose,” goes the old saying. So each society develops a code of conduct to meet the needs. Those needs will vary, and so will the consequences for breaking the code.
Crime and punishment are universal, but the definitions and severity of each are not.
I consider myself a conservationist. I am bothered by the slaughter of an elephant for tusks, a rhino for the horn or an antelope for a trophy head.
But I am also bothered by the summary execution of a human being.
How does one balance these scales?
I have no answer, which is why I keep thinking about this story.
Stuart Deane lives in Newburyport.