The Connection Between Poaching and Poverty


DODOMA, Tanzania — Africa’s poaching crisis is increasing at devastating rates, with thousands of endangered animals slaughtered every year for just a single body part worth huge sums of illegal money. Many people believe that rhino horns can cure hangovers and impotence, and many carve elephant ivory into jewelry and utensils.

The Conservation and Society Journal names socioeconomic status as one of the leading motives for poachers. “In particular, poverty is widely considered the leading driver that causes a household’s inhabitants to take up poaching in protected areas.” The illegality of poaching and resulting evasion from detection by poachers causes a lack of available data regarding poaching and poverty. A great deal of the data is merely speculative.

The Conservation Society, however, recently conducted a study using a rare sample of 173 poachers living close to Ruaha National Park in Tanzania. The study concluded that multidimensional types of poverty are fueling the poaching industry. While anti-poaching initiatives were addressing issues with the lowest level of poverty, they needed to broaden their approach to all different levels. Ninety-six percent of the studied poachers revealed that they would cease poaching if they were to receive a sufficient income to meet their needs.

Only 6 percent cited cultural reasons behind their poaching, with an average of four out of five naming income and food as their primary motives. The study additionally showed that while poaching was significantly attributed to the poorest of the poor, moderately poor households poached for supplemental income as well. This suggests that anti-poaching programs should expand their strategies to include all types of poverty levels, rather than just the poorest.

A lack of resources and education can tempt poor people living on the borders of wildlife sanctuaries to participate in poaching. A wildlife protection organization, Big Life Foundation, was the first to establish a coordinated border-wide anti-poaching operation in East Africa, employing hundreds of local Maasai rangers and protecting more than two million acres. The foundation’s co-founder, Richard Bonham, believes that creating employment opportunities to poaching and poverty-stricken areas through legitimate wildlife-based revenue outlets such as conservation and tourism is the only way to stem the temptation.

Thanks to this mentality, the region’s community where Big Life operates now sees a revenue stream of more than $1 million per year. Many poachers kill out of necessity and are taught at a young age to hunt due to lack of access to education. Big Life Foundation has even gone so far as to put an elusive former poacher on its workforce, showing that a steady paycheck can be the key to ceasing this illegal activity.

According to the Uganda Wildlife Authority, if elephant poaching continues on its projected path, African elephants will be extinct within 10 years. Worldwide, poachers kill about 40,000 elephants every year, and only about 400,000 remain in Africa. This is a serious problem for the Ugandan economy, especially for Ugandans living in poverty. The country, which greatly depends on wildlife tourism, could lose about 10 percent of its GDP if the poaching continues.

The country has addressed this issue with its “Poaching Steals From Us All” campaign, with incentives to stop poaching and poverty through documentaries, PSAs, billboards, social media and events imparting a sense of pride in Ugandan wildlife and spreading awareness.

A nonprofit organization called Nourish is based in Mpumalanga, one of the poorest areas in South Africa. Its projects focus on environmental education and conservation experiences so that local children not only learn to say no to poaching early in life but also have access to opportunities allowing them to do so. “We believe that by working to grow resilient communities that are healthy, educated and have access to opportunities, we can break the poverty cycle and thus impact the poaching coming out of rural areas” the organization states.

Kruger National Park in South Africa experienced an overwhelming increase in poaching in 2017, with 30 elephants killed so far, up from 22 at the same time last year. The ProTrack Anti-Poaching Unit patrols the western edge of the park, and its leader Vince Barkas recently told Mongabay News that working with the communities has done more for the eradication of poaching and poverty than violence has. “They [the poachers]have nothing to feed their families. They are offered more than they can ever earn to kill a rhino. Yet every time we shoot and kill a poacher, we turn another community against conservation,” he stated.

The western edge of Kruger National Park is home to two million impoverished people, most of whom are more concerned with feeding their families than animal conservation. The solution lies in making these amazing animals worth more to them alive than dead, which sadly is not yet the case for the poor people living just outside the gates.

The pride instilled by people traveling across the world to see their animals must somehow overshadow the huge potential paycheck poaching can offer. Only then will poachers begin looking at places like Kruger National Park and see the jobs as bounty rather than the majestic animals.

Katherine Gallagher
Photo: Flickr


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