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The problem with poaching, explained

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

By Hannah Bizick

It is a typical day on an African land reserve - the sun is blazing with an ever-threatening rain shower, safari trucks are in the distance, and locals are rounding their cattle.

A ranger is monitoring his assigned land, just like any other day.

And like too many other days, he arrives at the scene of the crime - an elephant carcass, no tusk in sight.

The bullet wounds make the culprit clear - poachers.

It’s a grim but all-too-familiar sight for rangers.

What is poaching?

Wildlife poaching is the illegal hunting or capturing of wild animals. It is one of the biggest contributors to wildlife trafficking and global trade, most often done through the black market.

The African Wildlife Association asserts that some local African elephant populations could disappear within the next decade if poaching persists at its current rate.

But elephants are not the only ones who fall victim to poaching; rhinos are equally in danger. Elephant tusks and rhino horns are the most common target for poachers as the financial and/or health benefits continue to encourage the practice.

According to an article by The Week, “A single male elephant's two tusks can weigh more than 250 pounds, with a pound of ivory fetching as much as $1,500 on the black market.”

The value of rhino horns highly varies with reported prices for their keratin anywhere from $100,000 per kg to $30,000 per horn.

The United Nations has reported that the international demand for ivory and rhino horns are “fueling catastrophic declines” in the elephant and rhino populations within Kenya, Tanzania, and throughout the continent.

This demand stems from the benefit for humans.

Poachers hunt and kill elephants for their tusks to reap the financial benefits of ivory trade. The ivory is then often used to make products ranging from trophies to jewelry and crafts, to musical instruments and religious trinkets.

Rhinos are poached for the keratin in their horns, a substance often used in Chinese medicine. According to the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, the keratin from rhino horns can specifically be used to treat illnesses such as gout, rheumatism, fever, headaches, vomiting, food poisoning, and typhoid fever.

As long as poaching generates money within a market for these things, it will continue to fuel the problem.

A brief history of poaching

Animal poaching has been present worldwide since the late 80s, early 90s, and has continued to progress since then.

Nearly 26 million elephants inhabited Africa in the 1800s, but by the early 1900s, according to National Geographic, shooting an elephant on safaris became increasingly popular for the wealthy, despite new European colonial states enacting game preservation laws that forbid most Africans from hunting.

Poaching for food, commonly known as “bushmeat,” as well as commercial poaching continued even after new laws deemed both practices illegal.

But in 1973, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora was able to get 80 countries on board with the governing of trade in endangered animals and plants. Rhinoceroses were included on the list of protected species, but it wasn’t until 1990 that most elephants were added as well.

Still, less than 100 years later in 1989, only 6,000 elephants were left.

And people who were still hunting for food - compared to those participating in commercial poaching for international black markets - were not as severe a threat to the animal populations, says British and African history professor Angela Thompsell.

But for food or not, poaching in Africa reached crisis levels in the 1970s and 80s and has caused detrimental effects to the conservation of wildlife ever since.

Why it started

While there are different opinions about poaching, one thing is clear - the need to provide for a family is at the root of the practice.

People participate in poaching for a variety of reasons, but the two most common include food and money.

A 2017 study interviewed nearly 200 African hunters had illegally hunted inside Ruaha National Park in Tanzania, and a large majority said they poached primarily for food (79%) and extra income (78%).

Although one-third of the poachers interviewed said they were employed, at least one-fifth said they poached to “supplement their income beyond their basic needs.”

Most respondents also said they “would quit poaching permanently if their income could be met in another way.”

Despite government efforts in the 1970s and 80s to curb poaching, Africa has once again become fertile ground for the illegal practice.

In the last 20 years, two main problems have contributed to its resurgence - Asian hunters depleting their own resources of wildlife, as well as militant extremist groups in Africa using poaching to fund their terrorism.

“Bring in colonialism, and our way of life changed,” said Taku Mutezo, expert wildlife lawyer and animal conservationist for Women for the Environment.

She added that globalization and technological development also brought more outside poachers to the continent.

But the financial offerings to African hunters for poaching were still inadequate as “kingpins” in Asia depleted their own wildlife and turned to Africa for their prizes.

“Motivated by greed, poaching in Africa started to rise as struggling communities were offered meager financial compensation for killing wildlife to cater to the demand in Asia,” said Mutezo.

While poachers in Africa and Asia are often impoverished locals who “make small profits in comparison to traders and kingpins,” a significant number of poachers participate simply to supplement their income and are not the “poorest of the poor,” according to the 2017 study.

“My assumption was that only extreme or absolute poverty, or desperate situations, would drive people to poach. I had no idea that subjective measures of poverty were equally important,” Eli Knapp, lead author of the study and assistant professor at Houghton College in New York, told Mongabay. “The vast majority were good people making very rational decisions and doing anything and everything they could to feed their families."

Poaching vs. trophy hunting

Poaching and trophy hunting are very different wildlife practices that often become confused as the same thing.

While poaching is illegal harvesting that is severely damaging to wildlife populations, trophy hunting is sanctioned under a required official permit provided by the government.

Poaching involves hunting an animal on protected land without permission or by ethical means, and the “business” of selling animal parts is mostly done through the black market.

Matezo recalled one estimate on poaching as a $3 billion criminal syndicate, one of the worst global crimes.

A 2017 report from Global Financial Integrity listed illegal wildlife trade as the seventh largest global crime, ranging from $5 billion to $23 billion in illicit markets.

According to Rose Mandisodza, senior wildlife ecologist within the Wildlife Department in Zimbabwe, hunters can participate in two types of poaching - subsistence and commercial.

"Commercial poaching involves killing animals for profit.” This includes selling the animal’s meat, hides, or body parts and is done on the black market. “Subsistence poaching is carried out by people who hunt for their own survival or to provide for their families.”

A report from the Congressional Research Service, says “subsistence poachers may hunt for consumption or local sale for comparatively small profits.”

Commercial poaching is done for the high value species, and these poachers are “not after the meat, they want the market for that animal,” Mandisodza added.

In comparison, trophy hunting is a heavily monitored and regulated practice that involves hunting animals for sport and is legal in some countries within Africa.

Trophy hunters are permitted to shoot and kill carefully selected animals such as rhinos, elephants, lions, pumas and bears that are hunted under official government license.

The majority of hunting safaris in Africa are arranged through specialized companies based in the United States called ‘outfitters’. These companies sell customized hunting packages according to the desires of their prospective client.

The outfitters make most or all logistical arrangements for the trip “including acquisition of the necessary permits and the provision of a professional hunter to accompany the tourist.”

Mandisodza clarifies trophy hunting in Zimbabwe takes place in the designated safari areas that are part of the protected areas, and sometimes communal areas as well.

But before any hunting is done, she says the government allocates a sporting quarter, or rather a specific time period in when the hunting can take place.

These quarters are set and approved by the government based on the amount of animals permitted to be hunted, along with other government and enforcement agencies who do the monitoring. Each hunter must also have an approved permit and cannot hunt anything that is not on the permit, she said.

Mandisodza presents an example of how this unfolds for a wildlife population.

“We could say, for a population of between 80,000 and 85,0000 elephants, we allocate a quarter of 500 and we only hunt about 100,” she said.

But a primary difference between trophy hunting and poaching is in economics. People pay the government for this 100 to be killed.

“And the money that we get is the money that we use to conserve the remaining wild population,” said Mandisodza.

"Trophy hunting is of key importance to conservation in Africa by creating [financial] incentives to promote and retain wildlife as a land use over vast areas," said Peter Lindsey, a conservation biologist with the University of Zimbabwe in Harare.

This is also significant money.

Mandisodza explains that the money they receive from participating hunters is the money they put toward conservation of the animals. This money comes from the daily and hourly rates of the hunt, the trophy, sleeping accommodations, food, transportation, and more - all things that add up quickly.

“That's the money that we use to buy the vehicles, the ammunition, the uniforms, and everything that's needed to conserve the animals," she said.

And ultimately, the controlled thinning of these wildlife populations can help provide food for humans too.

After the hunt is conducted and the trophy is collected, local people are given the meat from that animal.

“They get it for free and it is distributed to the communities,” Mandisodza confirms.

Huntshack, a hunting company that sponsors trips across the world, claims it uses the full animal after a kill. And whatever is not cooked immediately is given to trackers and employees, donated to local villages, or sold in the local game market.

According to Mandisodza’s knowledge from the elephant database on the CITES website, if you look at Africa, there is local extinction of elephant populations in some countries where trophy hunting is absent, but populations are on the increase where there is use of trophy hunting.

“So I think there are certain basics that might need to be addressed to reverse it,” said Mandisodza.

But there are advocates including the African Wildlife Foundation who argue that trophy hunting is not necessarily helping the conservation of animals in Africa.

Kaddu Sebunya, the president of AWF, believes trophy hunting and any trade in wildlife should be banned.

"This incident is a sad reminder that Africa must not rely on the killing of rare species to finance conservation. It is a call to the conservation community, institutions, and governments to increase investment in alternative financing,” said Kaddu.

And Kaddu says this alternative financing should be used to support programs such as relocation, eco-tourism development, and securing space for the animals to thrive without disruption.

Unfortunately, some African countries allow wealthy trophy hunters to track and shoot down species that are on the endangered list.

Although it is difficult for range states to consistently finance and manage the conservation of species, “it is important for the global community to invest in conservation efforts to mitigate the need for African states to employ hunting of these rare and endangered species to finance conservation,” said Kaddu.

Why it's so hard to stop

“There is no one challenge,” Mutezo says in regards to ending the poaching problem.

A great deal of under monitoring occurs at much of Africa’s protected land reserves due to the lack of resources. This unfortunate reality greatly contributes to the difficulty in pinpointing one reason why poaching is so hard to stop.

“The other challenge from the resource protection point is, if you have adequate resources, you'll be able to secure these places,” Mandizoda said.

There are many external factors that play a part in poaching, and many times, these factors are also out of law enforcement's control.

Most of the time, the poachers are not the ones funding the operation. And if the poacher is caught, the people with the money will only continue to recruit someone else. According to Mandisodza, that's where the problem is.

“Someone just gives them the gun, gives them the ammunition, and they go and do it,” said Mandisodza.

The National Geographic states that “the driving economic forces that facilitate illicit trade are supply and demand” and as long as there is a market, poaching will be present.

“It's hard to control or put a stop to it because of the money,” Mandizoda says. “It’s high risk, high returns. As long as someone is funding it and buying the project, I don't know if we'll be able to stop it.”

It can also often become dangerous for rangers and law enforcement when they arrive at the crime scene left behind by a poacher. If the poacher has not already fled, the chances are they are armed.

Mandisodza describes this as war.

“Because if they are armed, it's either they are going to kill me or they are going to kill the elephant,” she said.

In this case, there is not much that can be done.

The death rates of poachers and rangers in Africa due to this war presents the harsh reality that “when elephants lose, we all lose.”

“Two-thirds of these rangers die at the hands of wildlife poachers”, and over 1,000 park rangers die every 10 years protecting Africa’s parks and wildlife.

Tackling a deeper problem

Despite the increasing efforts to heighten the effectiveness of patrols, arrests, and increasing numbers of boots on the ground, poaching is still very much present on much of the continent's land.

Mutezo points out that the issue of poaching runs deeper. “It’s not just about the rangers anymore. Logistics companies, banks, behavioral change specialists, communications experts such as yourself - we can all do something to help,” she said.

She also explains one important step is establishing strong and enforceable laws from the rangers on the ground, to the police and judicial officers. Not only this, but making sure there are adequate resources to ensure the people in these authoritative positions are receiving the most effective training possible.

And Mandisodza believes “there's a need for strong education and awareness, so that people understand all these things.”

Oftentimes people forget that the government is not funding the conservation of animals, Mandisodza notes.

And in comparison, the poaching practice is constantly being fueled by money.

“I think a lot of people forget and don't realize that it's a multibillion-dollar industry and a multibillion-dollar crime,” Mutezo contends.

And this is in part why Mandisodza believes people should gain a better understanding about how trophy hunting allegedly helps with conservation.

“When you read it in the press, you're just reading one side of the story; it would be good to take some time to also read the other side of the story,” says Mandisodza.

An incredibly wide-scale problem

It is clear that there are various different groups with various different opinions regarding the poaching practice. But regardless, all groups seem to disagree on the root of the problem, let alone the most effective solutions to implement. This significantly contributes to the reason why the killing of animals through poaching and trophy hunting is still present.

Some believe trophy hunting is an acceptable form of conservation, while others condemn the practice and believe it is only making matters worse.

Killing species in either form is a problem that goes miles beyond simple answers.

If the world wants to reach fair ground, it is going to take coordinated action from local and national African governments working in tandem with wildlife conservation groups to address some of the deeper-rooted problems.

And unfortunately, the underlying problems are often overlooked.

The main issue, poverty, feeds underground poaching through the black market and makes it extremely difficult to end the practice and utilize efforts being made to stop it. The sad reality is that poverty will always be present, and there will always be someone who must resort to practices like poaching in order to feed their families.

It is also trophy hunting that isn't necessarily contributing to conserving the animals as some believe it is. Many African countries are still allowing trophy hunters to hunt endangered species.

And this is not a means of conservation. In fact, it is encouraging extinction of the rare species. But endangered or not, organizations like AWF believe trophy hunting as it relates to conservation is being used as an excuse to keep hunting around in general.

Whether it be poaching or trophy hunting, it is safe to say there are competing benefits and detriments at stake that surround the killing problem.

And while bringing poaching and trophy hunting to a complete halt is unlikely, decreasing the magnitude of the problem is possible.

Despite the harsh reality that poaching will most likely be present in some form, advocates and organizations are taking efforts to help mitigate the problem.

Organizations such as AWF and the Kenya Wildlife Service have worked to create strategies in hopes that more people will begin to invest in the worldwide issue on a deeper level.

The AWF believes that if we can work to train and equip wildlife rangers, implement more effective monitoring that allows rapid response to urgent wildlife threats, and more effectively empower local communities through conservation, we can improve the wildlife crisis.

According to the United Nations, the KWS is also legally mandated to enforce Kenya's wildlife laws and regulations. This mandate includes eliminating poaching in protected areas and reducing it to a bare minimum elsewhere.

To do this, the KWS has identified several strategies to combat wildlife crime - primarily relying on its law enforcement unit to work closely with groups that help monitor and have some authority to control this kind of illegal activity.

These include groups such as other law enforcement agencies, government institutions, local community leaders, border control and immigration authorities, ranchers and other conservation stakeholders.

KWS believes collaboration with judicial authorities in many parts of the country have helped improve the enforcement of wildlife laws.

And this is the best approach Mutezo sees too.

"I believe by coming together and working as a united front, we can bring positive change and conserve wildlife for present and future generations,” she said.

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