Why is Poaching so hard to Fight? Part 1 of 4

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.



Wrapping up…

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



Who Profits from Poaching?

Who Profits from Poaching?

As stated in my previous blog posts, poaching is a diverse crime that is carried out for different reasons. As such, an analysis of who profits from poaching will hinge on what type of poaching is being considered, and the answers will vary depending on region and the type of animal product being discussed. Further, in the context of poaching, the concept of profit is not necessarily limited to monetary gain – subsistence poachers, for example, profit because they gain a source of nutrition (in the case of bushmeat) or building and heating products (in the case of illegal timber poaching). A comprehensive analysis of all elements of poaching profits is outside the scope of this blog; instead I will focus on providing an overview of the profits gained from commercial poaching of wildlife. As it is impossible to put a singular figure on how much poachers earn as it varies significantly on region and targeted animal, it is therefore best to talk in terms of how the profits of wildlife crime are distributed.

Distribution of Profits

Poaching and the subsequent distribution and sale of illegal wildlife products is often a complex process involving numerous stages and a network of people.

The first step of commercial poaching is to recruit the poachers themselves. These are the people who do the actual killing of the targeted species and the harvesting of their parts. It is commonly believed that all poachers are just opportunistic, poor villagers looking to make a quick buck: while this is sometimes the case, it is grossly erroneous to believe all poaching occurs like this. Depending on species targeted and the location of operations, poaching often involves extended periods of time spent in the wilderness and so poachers usually require supplies including weapons, food, equipment such as tents, vehicles, and even training.

Once the animal has been killed and its parts harvested the process moves to the second step, which I have generically labelled ‘middlemen’. The middlemen are responsible for transiting the animal products between the poachers and the traffickers that will transport the goods to the receiving country/market.

The third step is the traffickers. Smuggling illegal wildlife products is very complex and often quite time consuming and hazardous. As such, the traffickers require substantial expertise and financial resources. The traffickers are usually organised criminal elements themselves, or they hire groups such groups who specialise in smuggling illegal contraband such as weapons or drugs. Further, they are frequently aided by corrupt officials who can assist in avoiding or overcoming transport regulations or customs inspections. They have also been known to utilise the services of rebel groups or irregular militias to secure transit of their illicit cargo through conflict zones as these are notoriously difficult to monitor and police.

After the goods are successfully smuggled from source country/area to their target market, the process moves to the fourth step: importers. Importers are those with the local knowledge, expertise and resources required to move illegal goods through (or simply avoid) the proper or official channels. This process regularly involves bribing officials and/or the utilisation of established criminal networks or methods. It may also include the procurement or falsification of the proper documentation – for instance, an import license for an exotic bird which may then be ‘legitimately’ sold.

The fifth step is the retailers – those responsible for selling the illegal goods to the consumer. Contrary to popular belief these transactions do not usually happen in dark alleys or in abandoned buildings, and the people or groups in this step may be willing participants in the illegal process, or they may have no idea that what they are selling is illegal (for instance, if the goods were provided by the importers with false documentation).

The types of retailers involved varies significantly. In the case of products smuggled for Traditional Asian Medicine, products may be sold through pharmacies, doctors, healers, markets, groceries, trinket dealers or just ‘off the street’. By comparison, exotic pets may be bought and sold through legitimate pet stores, front companies, or markets.

In order for any individual, syndicate or group to take part in this process they obviously must benefit from it, and they do. At each stage of the process the amount of ‘mark up’ applied is more appropriately referred to and measured in teams of factors rather than percentages. Let’s look at an example…


Example: Rhino Horn

Rhino poachers who operate in Kruger National Park in South Africa have been reported to earn between $3000 and $5000 US dollars per kilogram of horn harvested. This means that, for an average horn of around 4 kilograms, the poacher may earn around US$15,000 for a night’s work. This is an impressive sum by itself, but it is truly staggering when compared to the average annual income for a poor villager in the border towns of Mozambique where most rhino poachers in Kruger originate from.

Still, while $5000 per kilogram sounds like a lot, it pales next to the end-market value of horn, which some experts have reported as being near $90,000 per kilogram. It costs so much because (a) demand for the product is very high, and (b) each stage of the process requires a pay off, and when dealing with highly illicit material, these pay offs are substantial. The amount is representative of and dependent on the level of risk inherent in each stage, their expenses (ie: bribes, fuel, etc), as well as the availability and importance of each step (ie: it is much easier to find another poacher than it is to find another importer). A poacher may earn $5000 per kilogram, the middleman $15,000, the trafficker $25,000, the importer $35,000, and the retailer a smaller but still substantial amount.

It is worth noting though that the figures involved when analysing rhino horn are not indicative of the profits in other types of illicit wildlife goods. When dealing with less valuable species, there have been reported cases of the actual poachers themselves being paid in food, such as a bag of beans or flour. Indeed, rhino poaching seems to be the exception: in the overwhelming majority of cases the poachers themselves make very little from the transaction with the majority of the profit flowing to the later stages of the trafficking and distribution process.

Poaching Fuels War, Insurgency and Terrorism

The monetary profits from the illicit wildlife trade are not solely pouring into the pockets of ‘plain’ criminals. There is direct, credible and compelling evidence that the proceeds of poaching – in particular the harvesting of ivory – is directly profiting international armed groups whose primary purpose is insurgency or terrorism. The practice of these kinds of groups benefitting from crime is not new and therefore should not come as a surprise. It is well known that the FARC in Colombia have been using the profits from the cocaine trade to fuel their struggle for at least two decades, the Taliban directly profited from the trade in opium, various groups in South East Asia have earned cash from drugs as well as human trafficking, and the Al Shabaab in Somalia garnered significant income from maritime piracy off the Horn of Africa.

But, is it really a significant issue? Well, yes. In fact, the problem is so bad that some analysts have grouped ivory as the latest ‘blood’ resource in the same category as blood diamonds and the trade in conflict minerals. Indeed, the illicit trade in ivory has directly profited groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda and the al Shabaab in Somalia. In 2012 the New York Times reported that the notorious leader of the LRA, Joseph Kony, had directly ordered his fighters to kill as many elephants as possible and send him the tusks; the proceeds from this conflict ivory could then be used to sustain their organisation which has killed at least 3,000 people, displaced more than 400,000, and routinely utilises child soldiers in combat.

In closing…

As you can see, many individuals, groups and organisations profit directly from poaching, and they all have one thing in common: save perhaps for the unwitting shop owner selling illegal goods unknowingly, they are all criminals – or worse – who are in it solely for the purposes of self-enrichment at the expense of the rest of us, and at the expense of the world’s wildlife.

Int. Anti-Poaching Foundation

Why is poaching such a problem?

Poaching is a problem for a number of different reasons which extend far beyond the popular view that the only reason we fight poaching is to save the life of an animal here or there.

In discussing these impacts it is helpful to break the effects down into different categories.

Environmental Impacts

The environmental impacts of poaching are sometimes clearly visible and sometimes much harder to identify, at least in the short term. The most obvious impact is a depletion in the number of wildlife present in a given area. The defaunation of an area due to poaching flows from the immediate impact of killing an existing animal, the medium term effect of reducing breeding numbers and hence the rate of reproduction, and the long term effects of thinning the gene pool and the symbiotic- and often irreversible – impact this has on overall biodiversity.

This is not an abstract or ‘maybe one day’ problem. Just over a century ago there were over one million rhinoceros in Africa; now, poaching has directly led to the extinction of wild rhinoceros in Mozambique, most of western Africa, and many other regions across the continent. According to most reports, the number of wild rhino left in Africa hovers around 22-25,000 – that’s a reduction of around 97% over the last century. Further, according to the WWF, tigers, which could once be found across almost the whole of Asia, have had their wild range decreased by 93% over the last 100 years, and have suffered a numerical decline of 97%.

Tiger range, both historic and current. Image from WWF.

Tiger range, both historic and current. Image from WWF.

Additional to the drop of animal populations, poaching affects ecosystems. Natural ecosystems often develop a rather delicate balance between different types of fauna and their local habitat. Because of this, in terms of cause/effect the depletion of one species is analytically bound to the effects this has on other species. For example, the removal of predatory animals can result in an over-abundance of prey animals resulting in the destabilization and decline of vegetation; the decline of prey animals can lead to drops in predator numbers because of a reduction in food supply. Further, certain species are considered ‘keystone’ species in their local environment. For example, many species of animal – such as elephant – are responsible for the distribution of plant seeds and hence a local extinction of elephant has a heavy consequence for local vegetation. These changes in vegetation affect other animals along the food chain, and the circle continues.

Economic Impacts

The negative economic impacts of wildlife crime are difficult to quantify but they are very real. Across much of southern Africa wildlife tourism plays a vital role in local and even national economies and a decline in wildlife numbers due to poaching has immediate flow on effects in terms of financial cutbacks, job losses, and overall economic sustainability.

Further, as with other highly profitable illicit markets such as illegal narcotics, poachers and wildlife traffickers profit directly from state weakness: it is this weakness, which manifests itself as poor enforcement or regulatory platforms and state corruption, which facilitates the widespread existence of large criminal networks. Criminals therefore have an inherent interest in actively undermining state economic development – a particular problem in a number of already vulnerable countries in the developing world.

Health Impacts

The impact poaching may have on human health is not widely discussed, however it can be significant and the emergence of numerous zoonotic diseases has been linked directly to wildlife crime. The outbreak of SARS in Hong Kong has been traced to the human contact with and consumption of poached meat available on black wildlife markets. Ebola, one of the world’s most horrific diseases, has had outbreaks in Africa directly linked to the poaching and consumption of primates. Further, bird flu (H5N1), Monkey Pox, and Heartwater Disease are additional examples of diseases directly facilitated by the illegal wildlife trade. Indeed, according to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), 75% of diseases reach humans through animals: a fact made more worrying because the illegal entry routes used by smugglers bringing exotic wildlife and their parts into international markets are unable to be effectively monitored, let alone quarantined and controlled.

Social Impacts

As well as the impacts listed above which all have some kind social dimension, the social impacts of poaching are harder to objectively measure and their seriousness often depends on each person’s own sense of ethics and morality. For instance, it is impossible to put a monetary value on the ability to see wild animals in their natural environment and not just in a zoo, just as it is impossible to put a monetary value on the social impact of a decline in wilderness areas. However, for many people – myself included – the natural world is a raw , inspiring and intoxicating place, and the exploration of it is a tremendous personal pleasure. What if our children could never see it the way we have? And what about their children? These are individual questions we must answer for ourselves.

The effects of poaching and the illicit wildlife trade on animal welfare is also impossible to put a monetary value on, though most people would be appalled by some of the details. Poachers of big game in Africa, like elephant and rhinoceros, are mostly unskilled marksmen who use under-powered rifles resulting in an animal being severely wounded and dying slowly. Wire snares, used to trap game, get tangled around the legs of big animals leading to horrific injuries as captured animals struggle to get free, and the necks of smaller animals, resulting in individuals being strangled to death slowly or ripping their own necks open during the struggle for freedom. The IAPF’s founder has seen a buffalo that had been caught in a snare fight so hard that it tore its own pelvis in half.

Besides shooting and snaring, there are also less conventional methods of big game poaching. There have been reports in Mozambique of poachers using land mines to hunt ivory: due to the size of an elephant the mines are not usually sufficient to kill the animal instantly and it bleeds out over many days or dies of subsequent infection. Highly organised poachers in South Africa have used helicopters to track and shoot rhino. Poachers worried about the tell-tale sound of a gunshot in a national park or game reserve sometimes resort to darting animals with a drug called M99 – a substance 1000 times more potent than morphine. In the right – re: safe – doses M99 can put a rhino to sleep in around 6 minutes and is used by authorities and game reserves to tranquilise animals for treatment or de-horning. However, poachers use a much higher dose to drop the rhino almost instantly: if the rhino survives the taking of its horn (very rare) the high dose of M99 leads to severe and lasting kidney, liver and other organ damage.

However, the inhumane practices of poachers are not only limited to African big game. Due to their ability to survive under extreme conditions exotic reptiles such as lizards and snakes are often smuggled in terrible places like the interior lining of a suitcase, an aluminium can, or even sealed inside trinkets like statues or carvings. Infant pythons are sometimes smuggled in CD cases, while some turtles get taped inside their eggs and shoved into socks for transit. Exotic birds, many endangered, are captured in massive nets, gagged or blind folded and drugged to prevent calling, and stuffed into boots, plastic tubes, or musical instruments to defeat x-ray machines. As a result of such treatment, some reports have said that up to 90% of live animals that are smuggled die in transit.

Wrapping up…

As has been argued, poaching and the illicit trade in wildlife can have significant consequences beyond those popularly known. There is far more to conservation than the stereotyped tree-hugging, slogan-branding hippies portrayed in mass media, and the motives of conservationists are deep and diverse and not solely based on preservation of life, though this is a major part of it.

Stopping poaching is not just in the interests of animals… it is in the interests of us, and in the interests of our humanity.

Thanks for reading.

Best regards,

Int. Anti-Poaching Foundation

What is Poaching?

Poaching has many forms but the term generally refers to the illegal taking or killing of wildlife – both flora and fauna. It’s a serious problem worldwide: in fact, the black market in illegal wildlife products is worth nearly $90 billion USD per annum. For the purposes of this blog, we will concentrate on animal related poaching.

Animal poaching can be divided into two categories. The first kind is subsistence poaching. This involves the killing of animals for food: in Africa, this is commonly referred to as hunting ‘bush meat’. Depending on location, the animals taken for bush meat can include gorillas, monkeys, lions, elephants, zebra and buffalo, though the definition is accurate for any wild animal killed for food.

The second kind is commercial poaching, or poaching for profit, and it can take several forms. First, it includes hunting for bush meat on a larger scale for the purposes of selling the meat on. Second, it includes the capture of live animals for export as pets, such as exotic birds, reptiles and mammals. Third, and the kind that gets the most publicity, includes the killing of certain creatures for the harvesting of their parts. For example, elephants are killed for their ivory, rhinoceros for their horn, lions and tigers for the pelts and bones, bears for their paws and bile, etc.

The severity of the problem varies depending on location, as does the type of poaching that is causing the most damage. In Zimbabwe for example, though it is affected by all kinds of poaching, the most damaging problem is arguably the subsistence poaching of timber. The widespread harvesting of wood for fuel or construction has led to drastic reductions in localised wildlife numbers and some local extinctions due to the clearing of habitat and its flow-on effects. In South Africa on the other hand, the principal problem is the poaching of animals for their parts: rhinoceros horn being the prime example. Over the last 6 years, the number of rhinoceros killed for the purpose of harvesting their horn has increased by over 7000% (not a mistake), from 13 in the whole of 2007 to almost 550 in the first 7.5 months of 2013.

So, that’s a basic outline of what poaching is, as well as some examples. Next week I’ll broach in more depth some of the factors that make poaching such a problem: we’ll detail the effects of poaching and cover who profits – and who suffers – from it.

Go well.

Int. Anti-Poaching Foundation