Wildlife science student interviews former Zambian poachers

The summer of 2012 opened up Stephen Perkins’ world.

Perkins, a senior from Altavista, Va., majoring in wildlife science in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, traveled to remote villages in Zambia to document the stories of converted poachers. As an intern for a conservation organization in the southern African country, he encountered unusual foods, dicey transportation, and some unwanted attention from an armed border guard.


Stephen Perkins, at right, meets with a former Zambian poacher who now grows an extensive garden. To the left is his water source. Stephen Perkins, at right, meets with a former Zambian poacher who now grows an extensive garden. To the left is his water source. Photo courtesy of Stephen Perkins.

“I entered a place where everything was novel to me — the languages, food, culture, spiritual world, and landscape. My curiosity was constantly engaged,” Perkins said. “It was the experience of a lifetime.”

Through Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO), Perkins spent the summer interviewing former wildlife poachers near Zambia’s North Luangwa and South Luangwa national parks, two of Africa’s prime wildlife sanctuaries.

His journey to Zambia started in spring 2012 at Virginia Tech’s Center for European Studies and Architecture.

Perkins participated in University Honors’ inaugural Presidential Global Scholars program, led by distinguished faculty at Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, as well as other European sites.

Perkins said the experience proved to be a turning point in his education. “At one point during the semester, I realized that I could do anything I want to do in the world in an academic sense. It’s something we hear as little kids, but it didn’t really mean anything to me until I woke up one morning after having just studied for two weeks in Greece and traveled with friends to Spain and Romania,” Perkins said. “It was powerful. It was emotional. Yet it was also humbling because the world is a big place.”

He made several connections within the Presidential Global Scholars program that advanced his career goals. One was an invitation to visit the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University. The other pointed him toward Africa.

After a fellow student told Perkins about COMACO, Perkins made a connection with founder Dale Lewis and became the organization’s first intern.


Stephen Perkins travels through Zambia by boat. Transportation throughout Zambia was always interesting, Stephen Perkins says. Here he travels in a small boat with his interpreter.

Perkins’ main task was to document through sound, video, and print the stories of ex-poachers who used COMACO’s program to develop sustainable careers. Lewis discovered that people poached because they didn’t have skills to make a decent living and feed their families. The nonprofit now trains and provides start-up resources to poachers who surrender their guns and snares.

“Fewer animals are killed,” Perkins said. “Elephant numbers are up. So are zebras, hartebeests, and other animals. I interviewed poachers who are raising poultry, goats, or bees; growing soybeans or maize; making furniture; blacksmithing; and running fish farms.”

Poaching is a risky, dangerous occupation. Perkins said he could often identify the village poachers by their wounds. “If they used a homemade muzzle-loading gun made from scraps of wood and metal, they often had eye or head injuries from backfires,” he said. “They all tell stories of friends killed in run-ins with game wardens or by lions, snakes, or other animals.”

Perkins said traveling around Zambia by overcrowded bus, van, motorbike, or hitchhiking was the most dangerous part of his African experience. He said he spent several nerve-wracking hours talking with a border guard after he inadvertently crossed into Zimbabwe.

He learned to eat crocodile, caterpillars, and goat entrails “with the green stuff inside,” and to carry cooking oil or other food gifts for the village chiefs, who determined his welcome in the village. He slept in huts, on buses, or on the concrete floor of a market building.

He went a month without seeing a computer.

“When I came back to COMACO headquarters and got to sit in a comfy chair and listen to music and use my computer, it was a beautiful thing,” he said.

Perkins said he plans to do graduate studies in behavioral research with primates. “A big reason I chose wildlife science as a major was because I knew it would allow me to work essentially anywhere in the world,” he said. “The more exotic, the better.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Lynn Davis or 540-231-6157.

Video: Former poachers

    Video: Former poachers

Stephen Perkins produced a five-minute video of his interviews with transformed poachers for COMACO.

Photo gallery: 2012 Presidential Global Scholars

The Presidential Global Scholars had four months to live in and explore Europe. The program offered several trips and experiences as part of the curriculum, while students also set out on adventures of their own.

Program develops leadership skills

    Students in the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s Leadership Institute.

During the 2012-13 academic year, Stephen Perkins participated in the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s Leadership Institute.

Twelve of the college’s best juniors and seniors are selected for this two-semester program in which students develop leadership abilities to prepare them as for future roles in managing natural resources for sustainability and biodiversity.

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