CHICAGO, Illinois — As populations grow in East Asia, the demand for wildlife products also grows, particularly for products on the black market – ivory or rhino horn, the prices of which are increasing daily. Poaching is more organized and better funded than ever before, with better armed and skilled criminal networks. The extreme poverty of many African communities fuels these networks and makes poaching possible.
In 2012, an estimated 15,000 elephants were illegally killed in Africa. Elephant killings outpace elephant birth rates. About 500 rhinos a year are poached in South Africa alone. Rhino horn powder is worth more than $30,000 per pound, making it more valuable than both gold and cocaine.
The conditions for poaching are dangerously ingrained in the culture of many countries. In the Western Serengeti in Tanzania, around 55,000 illegal hunters live within a 45-kilometer radius. Most are men and begin poaching as teenagers, usually living in poor, uneducated farming families who have few livelihood alternatives. For many, who often can’t rely on farming because of harsh weather conditions and natural disasters, poaching is a more dependable source of income.
For hunters in the Serengeti, poaching can be many things – a thrill, a way to develop skills, an identity passed down for generations in their families. Once they have hunted, they either keep the meat for households to eat, trade it for goods or sell it for money.
But there are significant risks for poachers. To avoid being detected by anti-poaching patrols, many carry out their activities at night, increasing the possibility of injury by wildlife or travel. Many also meet hostility from members of other ethnic groups they are met with, like the Maasai.
Poaching is not only a danger to the poachers, but also to the communities around them. A report at the African Elephant Summit in Botswana in December 2013 found a link between infant mortality rates and the illegal killing of elephants. The report was created by The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. High poaching levels are more prevalent in countries where the government is weak – poverty and governance are seen as “enabling” factors for poaching.
Poverty increases trafficking because it’s a source of income that many depend on. But trafficking also increases poverty because poachers receive a small amount of the profit and their wider local communities lose practically all potential value. Although wildlife trade is worth around $300 billion a year, the communities who live among the wildlife don’t see benefits. Corruption by parks agencies, government officials and private businesses allow trafficked products to move from countries in Africa to markets in Asia, and the profit from these commodities is taken by corrupt individuals rather than the country as a whole.
But it’s not just about poverty – without the demand for poached products, there wouldn’t be a need for poaching.
Dr. Dale Lewis founded the Community Markets for Conservation in 2003 and trains poachers around the world in alternative livelihood skills like bee-keeping and carpentry, as well as sustainable farming methods that work better in the weather conditions in which the poachers live. In the program, each poacher finds at least four other poachers, they all turn in their guns and snares and then are taught how to grow crops to both eat and sell.
“This is what it’s all about,” Lewis said in a National Geographic interview in 2009, “giving people a source of sustained income built around conservation.” Although his program is quickly growing, so is trafficking of illegal animal products; it looks like Lewis, and others who share his goals, might have to look for a quicker way to end poaching.
– Rachel Reed