Source: https://www.itswild.org/index.php/our-story/ Elephants were dying and people were hungry. We trained poachers to farm and provided a market where there was none. In the 1980s wildlife populations in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley were ravaged by poaching. It is estimated that within twenty years from the early 1970s to the early 90s, elephant populations in this region dropped from 35,000 to 2,400. At the peak of the poaching epidemic 12,000 elephants were killed in one year. During this time the black rhino, which had previously existed in healthy numbers in the Luangwa Valley, went locally extinct. Meanwhile, villagers in the Luangwa Valley were struggling to make ends meet. Extreme poverty and remote conditions meant most people lived a subsistence lifestyle. Poor agricultural practices resulted in nutrient-drained soils and small yields. Pests attacked what meager crops were harvested, and many families went hungry. With no other choice, villagers turned to wildlife poaching to feed their families. “Bushmeat” was harvested and traded many miles away for food or small amounts of cash, and ivory was sold on the black market. With no other markets available, poaching was the only source of income for villagers of the Luangwa Valley. At the time, the only programs addressing poaching were punitive. A limited number of wildlife rangers identified, arrested and imprisoned poachers. But incarcerating a poacher meant sentencing his family to hunger as well. With the loss of the family’s main provider many women were left vulnerable to exploitation. And in the 80s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic in Zambia, the stakes were very high. Our founder, a wildlife biologist, saw an opportunity. He asked what if, instead of imprisoning poachers, we trained them to farm, and provided a market for their crops. In 2003 COMACO started a pilot program working with 24 of the most notorious poachers in the Luangwa Valley. Poachers were taught basic practices in soil conservation and drought resistance and supplied with high-quality seeds and basic farming tools. In exchange, they agreed to stop poaching and surrender their guns. Soon, hundreds of poachers were approaching COMACO’s field staff offering to surrender their weapons for a similar trade. The model was working. Today, COMACO works with over 179,000 farmers across Eastern Zambia. We purchase and transport crops from remote regions, where few other buyers will travel, and pay premium prices to give farmers the value they deserve. We then process the crops into high-quality food products and sell them across Zambia under our brand It’s Wild! All revenues are returned to our farmers through continued support and programming. As a result, food security levels have dramatically increased across the region, and slowly but surely elephant populations are returning to the Luangwa Valley.