Any new fashion trend has its victims, but not Snarewear. Made from snares used for wildlife poaching, the pieces in this new line of jewelry have claimed their last victims from the floodplains and forests of Africa.

Adorned with seeds from native plants, these necklaces, anklets, and earrings are part of an effort by Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) to halt poaching for meat in Zambia’s wildlife-rich Luangwa Valley by improving farming practices and the local economy.

Hidden underfoot, 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, and even elephants. These wounded or dead animals, in turn, attract large carnivores, such as lions and wild dogs, which can become entangled in other traps lying nearby.  The one thing that law enforcement officials find more difficult than detecting snares is tracing them to their owners.

“The only way to stop snaring is to get people to stop snaring,” says Dale Lewis, director of COMACO, a project of the Wildlife Conservation Society. So, that is exactly what Lewis is doing with his poacher transformation program. In exchange for special skills training in trades like farming, beekeeping, and carpentry, former poachers have handed over more than 800 firearms and 40,000 snares.  That’s a lot of wire. “I wanted to do something that would turn [snares] into something like an art form, something that could really be quite beautiful,” says Lewis.

Now, with the help of local jewelry designer Misozi Kadewele, the recycled snares are capturing the attention of villagers and tourists passing through the COMACO store at Mufwe Airport in Zambia. As for the guns, Lewis would like to turn them into lamps— but firearm regulations require him to hand them over to the Zambian government.

While poaching for ivory and other wildlife trade items occurs throughout much of Africa, the majority of the snaring in the Luangwa Valley is hunger driven. According to the United Nation’s World Food Program, 47 percent of Zambians are malnourished.

“When living with wildlife and people that are periodically hungry, you get people who find ways and means to go out and kill a wild animal and use the meat to exchange for starchy foods that they couldn’t grow or didn’t have time to grow,” says Lewis.  Along with periodic crop failures and weather crises, the area’s tobacco and expanding cotton industry have affected the region’s food supply: Much of the land that formerly produced dinner now yields inedible commodities.

COMACO is helping to increase the area’s food production as well as farmers’ incomes by promoting conservation-minded agricultural practices. With over 35,000 members, who sell products like rice grown in the wet season and peanuts in the dry season, COMACO grossed more than $350,000 last year.

Lewis estimates the snare-for-training program has prevented the poaching deaths of more than 3,000 animals, but acknowledges the strategy would probably only work in areas where the poachers are locals. In the Luangwa Valley, Lewis boasts that about 90 percent of participants graduate the program and find alternatives to poaching.

Getting them to enroll, however, wasn’t so easy at first.  “They suspected a trick, or they believed they would not come home, that it was a trap,” he says. “Most of these guys had been locked up before.” But they did return, and after watching their neighbors apply their newfound skills, others followed.

“Lewis is trusted by the locals and fulfills his promises and is there for the long term. [The Progam] is not just a shot in the arm,” says Jack J. Johnson of Conservation Force, an organization that promotes sports hunting as a means for conservation and provided the project’s initial funding.

At costs between $5 and $15 per accessory, Snarewear will soon be available online. Sixty percent of the earnings go to designer Kadewele and the other village women, who are turning metal nooses into beaded necklaces. The rest of the proceeds help fund COMACO’s snaring-related programs.  “The more we sell, the faster we can go out of business,” says Lewis.

Story by Melissa Mahony. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007