As the global human population increases, and because illegal wildlife trade is so financially lucrative, demand for wildlife and their parts has greatly increased, leading many species to become threatened or endangered.
Wildlife poaching has grave consequences for targeted species and their habitats. Besides, it has clear environmental implications, which illustrate how our environment is connected to our well-being and economy, as this illegal activity negatively affects ecosystems, our health and prosperity of local communities.
It is important to know that the consequences to wildlife are not only devastating; they are also pervasive.
In Africa, illegal poaching has led to the extinction of wild rhinoceros in Mozambique. And many other regions across the continent have witnessed a drop by 97 percent in rhino populations just over the last 100 years.
A similar story emerges in Asia with tigers, a species that was commonly found across most of the continent. Sadly, according to IUCN, numbers of these beautiful animals have shrunk so much that they can be now found living on less than six percent of their historical range.
What is poaching of wildlife and why is it illegal?
The act of poaching includes illegal hunting, killing or capturing of wildlife. It includes also the failure to comply with regulations for killing of wildlife, but also taking animals from protected areas, such as national parks or game reserves.
Most countries have implemented regulations that are aimed at the protection of wildlife, including hunting restrictions, hunting bans, and restrictions on trade.
Hunting animals is regulated by governments with the input of local wildlife officials who are knowledgeable with the number of animals within its jurisdiction and the number required to maintain a sustainable ecosystem.
- Some species are critically endangered and are not allowed to be hunted or captured under any circumstances.
- Others may enjoy a large population and pruning its numbers may even help ultimately sustain the ecosystem.
These decisions are made by considering the entire region and the relationships of wildlife and plants within it. In some areas, quotas may change seasonally depending upon the abundance or scarcity of the wildlife that particular year.
For example, one may be allowed to catch six trout longer than 8 inches one year and only three trout the next. One may be allowed to shoot one female white-tail deer during a designated period after its offspring become independent and outside of mating season and two male deer who have antlers with at least two horns on each side.
Hunting licenses are applied for and must be available for inspection. Accordingly, wildlife poaching can be simply shooting deer out of season or above the lawful quota, killing tigers in the neighborhood for safety reasons, or shooting coyote to protect sheep herds, but it is most often done for money.
Examples of poaching include:
- hunting without a permit
- hunting with a prohibited trap or weapon
- hunting outside of designated seasons
- taking a protected sex or life stage of an animal
In fact, the illegal wildlife trade is presently estimated by the World Bank to be between ten and twenty billion dollars annually .
The illegal wildlife trade has many players, from native bushmen to corrupt government officials. Much of the trade is orchestrated by international crime syndicates.
Many different tactics are employed and many people involved to ease passage through ports and across borders where the exit and entry of illegal wildlife trade should be deterred by government oversight. Interpol has found that these wildlife trafficking networks are commonly also used to smuggle other illicit commodities including drugs and weapons .
Poaching animals typically involves the commission of other crimes to cover its tracks and ease the perpetration: tax evasion, money laundering and illegal firearms trafficking. Document fraud is a widely used tactic to obtain international permits regulated by international conventions.
Money is paid all along the route from poacher to buyer and the end consumer often pays a high price for the sought commodity, whether it is a tiger for a pet or its pelt for a rug, a perceived panacea for a terminal disease or an edible delicacy to be savored at an expensive restaurant in clear view of political rivals or powerful financiers.
Unfortunately, satisfying the buyer’s desire is an end game for the animals hunted. Due to the astronomical prices that can be commanded, illegal wildlife trade focuses on the rare and exotic. This is pushing many already endangered species toward extinction .
Main reasons for poaching: Why do people poach?
People have been hunting animals for most of our existence on Earth, and for a very long time, hunting has been necessary for survival and an important part of human culture. Animals parts have long been used as a source of food, medicine, and clothing.
Some animals are considered sacred and integrated into different social ceremonies for different traditional cultures like the North American Bison has been to the North American native people groups that lived on the Western Plains of the United States.
Sport trophy hunting is also a common practice that occurs throughout many countries around the world. While most of these nations now impose controls and limits on hunting wildlife, illegal hunting still occurs in many places.
For most of human history, many of these cultural traditions of hunting were not really a problem when our populations were relatively small and wildlife populations were relatively abundant and could easily recover their numbers. Today, however, we have surpassed those natural wildlife population limits, and in many cases, are driving many species to be threatened or even to extinction.
Probably the most forgivable criminals are those who poach to feed hungry families and do not understand the consequences of their behavior.
Others poach for the trophy only. These big game hunters feel that displaying an animal head, its pelt or even an entire animal, stuffed, is an emblem of their prowess. This psychological need is the incentive for big game hunters everywhere and they are willing to pay large sums of money for the opportunity.
Some big game hunting is legal and promoted by regions who want the money for the license as well as the corollary money that may be spent by the hunter while visiting. What sometimes happens however is that unscrupulous guides, attracted by cash, circumvent regulations to help the hunter bag his trophy.
A notorious case caught the public eye not long ago when guides lured a famous and rather tame lion out of its preserve in the middle of the night, allowing a dentist from the Midwest to kill the lion with his silent crossbow . How many incidents like this happen is unknown.
Most poach for money. With more wildlife species becoming rarer and rarer in the wild, the demand for those few remaining animals drives higher prices for those who buy them. Those who do the actual killing are from impoverished regions in Africa or Asia and will break the law for cash.
In Mozambique, rhino poaching is a lucrative opportunity. A poacher receives $5,000 for a rhino horn, a stupendous amount in an economy like Mozambique where a farmhand’s wage is $100 a month .
It is estimated that the typical poacher, who may risk death for his crime, receives 5 to 10 percent of the retail value of the end product .
Corruption and lax poaching laws with minimal protections for wildlife that have relatively few consequences allow wildlife poaching to continue relatively unchecked in many regions.
In addition to criminal syndicates mentioned in the introduction, others involved in the lucrative wildlife trade include rebel militias who trade ivory for guns or use monetary proceeds to fund their terrorist organizations . Sadly, wildlife trade often occurs within large international criminal networks some of which also involve the trafficking of illegal drugs, arms and people.
Many commercial poachers who sell bush meat and fish to restaurants and grocers are in the business as well .
Rampant illegal fishing of the oceans and seas for commerce is a big problem and threatens the sustainability of all marine life .
A recent study of the Mediterranean Sea showed that 93 percent of studied species were over exploited, many on the verge of extinction .
And of course, corrupt government and military officials responsible for stewardship at animal reserves and for letting the illegal goods pass through border checkpoints are in it for the money and glory of power.
Where is poaching happening?
Illegal poaching happens everywhere.
Rifle shots rang out yesterday in the surrounding woods in Virginia, though hunting season formally begins today. Poaching land animals for the black market however occurs primarily in Asian and African countries where the range of wild animals is broad and catching poachers is difficult.
Hiring a killer is easy in undeveloped countries where the poor and hungry are desperate to do any bidding for even the small portion of the profits they receive, risking the increasingly harsh consequences of getting caught. It is believed that half of the world’s poaching is in Africa and of that, most in Zimbabwe, followed by Kenya .
Consumers are all across the world. Much focus has been on the Asian market for traditional Chinese medicine cures, but traditional Chinese medicine is popular throughout the world and endangered exotic animals are even sold as pets in the United States and Europe .
In preparation for a collaborative workshop with Interpol recently, the International Fund for Animal Welfare released a report showing that over only six weeks in 2017, researchers found nearly twelve thousand ads for live endangered animals and their parts for sale online in France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom .
Negative effects of illegal poaching on local tourism
In economic terms, the extinction of a species can have a negative effect on local tourism. The area not only becomes less attractive to potential tourists, but it also means that there is an increased chance of “tourist boycott.” A boycott could have a detrimental effect on a local economy since restaurants, hotels, rentals, and other attractions would suffer great losses in revenue.
To illustrate the potential impact, it is worth noting that sub-Saharan Africa attracted 33.8 million visitors in 2012. If Africa was to lose its iconic species, this would in turn create a huge financial impact on the continent, most likely resulting in job losses particularly in the tourism industry which currently employs around 8 million people.
Beyond the environment and the economy, poaching animals can have severe consequences on communities. Not only does it threaten traditional ways of living but it also relies on profiting from state weaknesses and corruption.
This creates an inherent interest among poachers and criminals in actively undermining state economic development – a particular problem in a number of already vulnerable countries in the developing world.
What animals get poached the most?
Pangolins, elephants, rhinos, tigers, gorillas and sea turtles top a long list.
Pangolins, small shy creatures native to Asia and sub-Saharan Africa who root in the sandy earth for termites, are the most heavily trafficked mammals in the world, at 100,000 poached annually for the past decade and now nearing extinction .
- They are poached primarily for their scales, which are ground and used in “traditional” Chinese medicinal concoctions for kidney ailments. Pangolin scales sell for $3,000 a kilogram on the black market.
- Pangolin meat is also now considered a delicacy among wealthy Vietnamese.
Elephants are poached for ivory.
Despite public attention and widespread efforts to stop the slaughter, elephant poaching is still happening. 100 elephants are illegally killed each day for their ivory tusks . Hopefully, China’s recent trade ban on ivory products will result in a further decline of the numbers .
Rhinos are also poached for their horns .
Rhinoceros horn, also admired for its luster, has been used over the centuries as ornamentation: in ceremonial cups, belt buckles and more recently, until outlawed in 1982 it was inlaid in ceremonial daggers presented to young Yemeni men as a passage rite into manhood and to show their devoutness to the Muslim religion.
More pervasive though, is their procurement for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Ground rhino horn has been used over the centuries for:
- food poisoning
- possession by the Devil himself 
While it is harder to imagine the origin of the folklore when presented under the rubric of “traditional Chinese medicine,” the marketing ploys generated by black market buccaneers of recent years are easier to picture.
All five of the rhinoceros species are threatened with extinction. The brutality of their slaughter is particularly egregious. Local poachers feed something to their slow, highly-visible prey to make them collapse. The poacher then runs toward the rhino with a chainsaw and saws the horn from the rhino’s face while she is still alive.
Tigers are one of the most sought-after of the big cats, desired for their gorgeous, iconic coats, symbolic of wealth and luxury. Clothing and tiger-skin rugs are popular in many parts of the world today.
Although tigers have been making a “comeback” due to preservation efforts, still today, less than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild across the entire Asian continent .
Every species of gorilla is on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, considered the most comprehensive global inventory of animal and plant species [22,23].
Only 17% live in protected regions and while habitat destruction and disease are contributing to their decreasing numbers, the killing for bush meat trade has been increasing. It is estimated that only between 100,000 and 200,000 remain.
A United Nation report projects that they will disappear from the African Congo by the mid 2020s .
Gorillas share over 98% of their genetic code with humans.
Sea turtles, a key species in marine ecosystems for maintaining the health of sea grass beds and coral reefs are poached for their eggs, meat and shells.
- The eggs are eaten as a delicacy and for their perceived value as a powerful aphrodisiac.
- Expensive skin creams are made from their oils.
- The meat too is considered a delicacy and is eaten in religious ceremonies. It is estimated that 5,000 turtles are consumed annually during a pre-Easter celebration in coastal communities of Mexico.
- The shells used for jewelry and as decoration in musical instruments as well as ground for medicine.
Although they have been swimming the seas for the last million years, every species of turtle is endangered but the loggerhead, only recently removed from the endangered list as a result of intensive preservation efforts .
How does poaching affect the ecosystem?
An ecosystem is a unit of plants, animals, microorganisms and the non-living aspects, like the topography and weather of an environment. An ecosystem can be defined in different ways depending upon the aspect one is studying and can be very small: for example, one might be examining the microorganisms, fungi and bacteria and tiny soil organisms feeding on a single decomposing tree.
You have probably heard of wetlands ecosystems, often in the news because they are routinely drained and bulldozed over during development. Wetlands are home to many birds and aquatic life, as well as plants that provide water purification services.
Or perhaps you have read of the threats to the coral reef ecosystems. These ecosystems familiarly known as the rainforests of the sea for the abundant and varied marine life they sustain, are dying at an astounding rate due to pollution and warming waters.
These are concerns because ecosystems sustain key life and provide indispensable services to our biosphere, services which man is unable to replicate on the scale nature provides them.
An ecosystem provides habitats for the life it contains. In turn, the life within performs functions essential for a planet habitable for humans.
The web of life which comprises an ecosystem works in tandem to fertilize its soil, essential for growing food, to pollinate vegetation and crops, again, a process essential for food and for over two-thirds of modern medicines used in the United States , to detoxify polluted soil, water and air, necessary for human survival and to help stabilize climates.
For example, both the ocean and the rain forests act as a carbon sink, withdrawing excess greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere which would otherwise make the earth too hot and toxic for human survival.
Major ecosystems are recognizable as those which sustain forms of life within its temperature and humidity parameters.
Generally, six major ecosystems are recognized:
What if the poached animal is a keystone species?
In evaluating the integrity of an ecosystem, the threat to a keystone species is taken seriously. A keystone species as the name implies, is a species of plant or animal considered to play a pivotal role in holding the entire ecosystem in balance. The loss of a keystone species may mean the collapse of an ecosystem. The loss of an entire ecosystem may well have adverse and profound effects on the habitability of earth for humans.
Generally, a keystone species is one somewhere in the middle of a food chain or web. It is one, which if removed, is not quickly replaced by another which performs the same function within the web because there is no other species that can perform within its niche .
For example, a certain fish may be preyed upon by larger fish and prey upon smaller fish. If the entire species of that particular fish was subject to decimation, say by a disease, another species of fish that had been surviving in smaller numbers, may be able to expand its population and fill in the gap without upsetting the balance of the ecosystem. This is not the case with a keystone species.
It is unique and irreplaceable.
The full extent of relationships within the many ecosystems are complex and our knowledge is incomplete. Still, there are many relationships we have studied and scientists recognize keystone species in each of the ecosystems.
It is not the norm that a species at the top, or apex of a food web is a keystone species.
Obviously, homo sapiens dominate earth, but homo sapiens aside, looking at species in an endangered status due to poaching, three of the top six in this category – elephants, rhinos and gorillas are at the top of the food chain and considered keystone species in their regional ecosystems.
This is because of the unique and vital services each performs to sustain the natural balance of the ecosystem:
Pangolins perform a mighty task. A single pangolin digs through the earth, aerating and enriching the soil and eating an estimated 70 million insects annually, primarily ants and termites . Not only is the pangolin sustaining the balance of its ecosystem, but is benefiting any humans in the area living in wood houses.
Rhinos and elephants
Savannas, a grassland, are best recognized by their diverse and plentiful animals: birds, insects, giraffes, gazelles, lions, rhinoceros, antelope, jackals, zebras and cheetahs.
Rhinoceros, who selectively graze the vegetation and elephants, who consume leaves from the low broadleaf trees characterizing the savanna and available in the forest ecosystems some habit, are each considered keystone species for their unique services sustaining their ecosystems [33,34].
Where nutrients are found in the soil and how animals move them about has been found to have dramatic effects for the savanna, governing seasonal migration patterns, habitat differences and populations .
Gorillas, who live primarily in the forests, feed on fruit and bamboo, invertebrates and termites, are also considered a keystone species, providing among other services, the invaluable service of spreading seeds for more fruit trees .
Tigers are a keystone species due to their large impact on keeping prey in check . They live in varied habitats from grasslands to evergreen forests, rain forests and mangrove swamps throughout Asia, but wherever they roam, they need a large area. A typical tiger consumes 88 pounds of meat a day.
Due primarily to human population expansion, only about 7% of their historical natural habitat exists. People are afraid to live near tigers, which results in illegal killing and their now small range makes it easier for black market poachers to find and kill them.
Sea turtles too are recognized as a keystone species in marine life .
Spread of deadly diseases
Trafficking in illegal wildlife is an international problem. The consequences of the wholesale depletion of key species from major ecosystems are global, threatening the health of our only biosphere.
Not touched upon above, but a problem we are only now recognizing the gravity of, is the emergence of zoonotic diseases, nearly uncontrollable diseases like SARS, Ebola, and HIV that are transferred from animals to humans .
Poached meat is provided under the radar of food safety enforcement. Many diseases can be transferred simply upon handling infected animals or their parts.
Wildlife trafficking crosses many country borders, often taking circuitous routes to avoid detection.
For example, the outbreak of SARS in Hong Kong has been traced to human contact with poached meat available on black wildlife markets.
What can be done to stop poaching?
One hundred and eighty-three nations have signed the The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), pledging to fight the illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade under a uniform regulatory regime .
While collaborating to find a moving target poses its challenges, CITES has been working steadily toward a collaborative enforcement effort to increase enforcement and punishment of violators across member countries, recently founding the International Consortium on Combatting Wildlife Crime (ICCWC).
The ICCWC is a concerted effort between and among the CITES Secretariat, INTERPOL (international police), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Bank and the World Customs Organization (WCO). Member nations have internal agencies responsible for implementing CITES goals within their borders. Dogs at airports are sniffing for animal parts as well as drugs.
As an example, the United States relies upon the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Divisions of Management Authority and Scientific Authority as well as its Office of Law Enforcement to enforce CITES within its borders.
Private and community conservation initiatives to save poached species
Private and non-profit organizations have sprung up all around the world to bring attention to the problem, some adopting programs and conservation efforts for a specific threatened animal.
For example, the actor Leonard Dicaprio sponsors a foundation to save the endangered snow leopard. Many other celebrities are helping raise awareness of the plight of endangered species due to poaching. Ian Somerhalder testified in front of a congressional hearing in support of the US ivory ban .
Public attention to the issue educates fans to the consequences of their buying choices and to the forces influencing their decisions. Accordingly, it can ease the way for passing legislation like the State of California’s ban on ivory from illegally slaughtered elephants and rhinos, which was then unsuccessfully challenged in court by the innocuous-sounding private interest group, The Ivory Education Institute .
Conservation organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund are helping countries to comply with international trade regulations through education and the assisting with and funding the enforcement of regulations and anti-poaching efforts.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has teamed with the IUCN to create TRAFFIC, the world’s largest illegal trade monitoring network . To achieve this, WWF has partnered with wildlife trade monitoring organizations and other partners such as other conservation organizations, communities, and governments. Animal reserve stewards and park rangers in many countries are charged with protecting the animals within its borders.
WWF trains local authorities in modern methods of anti-poaching like using thermal infrared camera monitoring to detect humans at night, using drones and GPS tags, and it provides equipment for anti-poaching teams in several nations [44,45].
WWF and other conservation organizations also work on educating the public about the role of making responsible and sustainable consumer choices in order to maintain healthy wildlife population levels, which brings us to the next step of helping to reduce poaching.
Education is one of the ways to stop poaching and illegal wildlife trade
Many groups have found local education and recruitment of natives to the cause in areas where the animals are being poached are the most effective deterrents. The Save Vietnam’s Wildlife Organization educates, rescues, rehabilitates and reintroduces pangolins into their habitats and the Tikki Hywood Trust trains local “Pangolin Men” to take care of rescued pangolins .
The Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders Pangolin Support Initiative focuses on workshops teaching local Cambodians about pangolins and the poaching happening around them .
Other groups focus more specifically on the market.
For example, the Humane Society International, is focusing on educating Vietnamese, the largest buyers of rhinoceros horn, to the brutality and consequences of the slaughter. They credit their campaign aimed at schoolchildren to university students to business people with a 38% decline in consumption in just one year.
Remove the demand and the suppliers will diminish.
Education and legislation banning consumption are more surefire solutions than hoping to catch criminals, who will, if the money is there, simply be replaced with more criminals.
What you can do to help?
You can help to reduce the poaching of wildlife by supporting local or international conservation organizations that are pushing governments to protect wildlife through the enforcement of wildlife protections, the implementation of effective deterrents.
Remember that it is also important to not support the demand for animal parts. Reduce the demand for products made from endangered species by saying no to exotic souvenirs or meals from these animals.
 Interpol pdf Global Wildlife Enforcement March 2018
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