Why is Poaching so hard to fight?
Part 1 of 4: Poaching in General
In my previous entries I have contended that poaching is a serious crime, that it has potentially grim economic, social, health, environmental and security implications, and that the only people that truly profit from it are criminal entities and individuals. If this is all true, then evidently it is in the interests of the majority of people and countries for poaching to be eradicated even if the often contentious and personal issue of animal welfare was removed from the equation.
Unfortunately, while poaching is widely regarded as an ugly problem, it is usually poorly understood by decision makers, the press, and the general public in both the market and source countries, and hence communally we possess a weak understanding of how best to fight it.
This blog entry is the first in a series that will cover why I believe the different types of poaching are so difficult to fight. It is important to remember that as poaching is so diverse it is impossible for any of these entries to be entirely comprehensive; their purpose is to function more as a contextual foundation block for future research on an individual basis.
Why answer this question?
I have been asked by several people over the past few months a question along the lines of “So why can’t we just stop the poachers? Surely it isn’t that hard!” While this is an innocent question driven somewhat by exasperation on the part of passionate people angry at the illicit wildlife trade, it also demonstrates quite starkly one of the key problems in the struggle against wildlife crime: poor popular understanding. By increasing the general level of awareness and understanding, we increase our chances of defeating poaching as we will be better able to adapt and respond to the challenges posed by it and develop effective legal and enforcement counter measures. It also helps to provide people with a greater appreciation and understanding for the challenges faced by conservationists, law enforcement, anti-poaching units and sympathetic decision makers.
Thus, the primary purpose of this series of blog entries is to aid in the awareness and understanding of why poaching is so hard to fight. By highlighting these issues, over the next few weeks I will argue and provide reasons as to why it is both futile and reckless to approach the fight against poaching from only one angle or in only one area. Our approach must be holistic.
Understanding the dynamics:
One of the first challenges when fighting poaching is realising that poaching is not uniform and hence the challenges it poses and the best strategies for its eradication vary considerably. Indeed, it is all-but irresponsible to try and approach poaching as a singular crime. The commercial poaching of exotic birds for the pet industry in South America occurs for different reasons, in different jurisdictions, under different laws and by different actors than the subsistence poaching of impala for food in southern Africa or the killing of tigers for the harvesting of their parts for use in traditional medicine in parts of Asia. While there is a certain degree of overlap regarding elements of their characteristics, each is a unique crime which presents a distinct set of enforcement, protection, monitoring and educative challenges. They must be thought of and approached as such.
Understanding the criminal dimension:
Crime, whether it be stealing a packet of chewing gum from the corner store, murder, or poaching, requires three things: means, motive and opportunity. Means refers to ability to commit the crime, motive refers to the reason(s) a person has for committing the crime, and opportunity to the chance they had to physically perpetrate the crime. When considering the fight against poaching, it is beneficial to consider how each of these three can influence wildlife crime.
Means: The means to commit basic-level poaching are not expensive, complex or specialist. With a few exceptions, most poaching is done on foot and requires little in the way of equipment. Rhino poaching can be done with an old rifle and a hack saw, capturing of birds can be done with a fishing net, and the taking of bush meat may only involve an old piece of fencing wire fashioned into a snare and an axe/knife if the carcass is too big to carry whole.
Motive: There are various motives behind poaching. Subsistence poaching is generally motivated by hunger, poor economic status, desperation, a lack of other opportunities, or laziness. Commercial poaching on the other hand is driven solely by the desire for profit, and the profits involved are influenced by the traditional factors of supply and demand. More on this later.
Opportunity: The opportunity to commit poaching is affected by a number of factors such as the presence of target species, access to locations, the level and quality of security (rangers, guards, fences around reserves, etc), the characteristics of local laws, the level and type of enforcement capability, and others.
Their relative importance
It is hard to accurately measure the weight and influence of these three characteristics when considering their enabling effect on the prevalence of different types of poaching around the world. However, some assumptive generalisations can be made for the purposes of guidance. For example, as the type of equipment needed is generally quite basic and readily available, and the number and level of human skills required to commit poaching is not high, it is therefore reasonable to conclude that reducing poaching by targeting the ‘means’ will not produce significant and sustainable results. The balance of this conclusion is that, when considering the fight against poaching, the critical areas for focus are motive and opportunity.
The influence of motive
The influence of motive is significant because without adequate motive poaching – or any crime – would not occur. Poachers do not act out of simple disdain for wildlife or in pursuit of its arbitrary annihilation; poachers act because there is something in it for them, whether that be a simple meal for themselves or their family or a substantial monetary profit. In short, they commit poaching because it pays.
The question of why it pays has a remarkably simple answer: it pays because people want what the poachers provide. The demand for wildlife products – whether it be rhino horn, ivory, tiger bones, exotic birds, or the hundreds of others – is the solitary reason as to why the illegal networks that hunt these products exist. In this way, the illicit trade in wildlife is no different from any of the legitimate product markets we have contact with every day. For example, if no one wanted to drink cola any more, no company would make cola; if no one wanted to drive or own cars, no company would make cars. In the same way, if all of a sudden people had zero interest in acquiring, consuming or owning wildlife products, poaching would lose its financial incentive and the trade would expire. Hence, the demand for wildlife product is both the greatest threat to the survival of many species and the only reason why poachers do what they do.
The influence of opportunity
As with motive, opportunity plays a significant role in determining the location, prevalence and type of wildlife crime. As long as there is demand, poachers will attempt to satisfy that demand and will predominately do so by targeting locations that offer the least resistance.
It is for this reason that establishing robust security, patrol and defence systems is vital for high-risk wilderness areas, private reserves and national parks. Among other strategies, we can decrease poaching ‘opportunity’ through actions such as securing the areas in which poachers are operating, by increasing surveillance, by tightening local and international laws regarding the illicit wildlife trade, by sharpening our capacity to detect wildlife products in transit, or by increasing the level of international cooperation regarding the pursuit and prosecution of offenders.
While this sounds rather straightforward on paper there are daunting practical impediments to actually achieving many of these things. Poaching is a global crime and hence effective poaching counter measures to reduce ‘opportunity’ require clear, concerted and sustained efforts on the part of numerous actors across a tremendous physical area. This necessitates resources, political will and clear strategy on the part of all parties involved, and these are usually parties with differing political objectives and values.
Identifying and then understanding a problem is the first step to fixing it. If we are ever to drastically reduce the pervasiveness and influence of the illicit wildlife trade we need first to comprehend the reasons for the trade’s existence.
While this may sound like I am advocating education and awareness above all other strategies for mitigating poaching, I am not. As will be shown over the coming weeks, there are critical reasons why we must continue to fight poaching at every level: on the ground, in the media, in our houses of parliament and in our communities.
Int. Anti-Poaching Foundation