How do you deal with animal poachers?

Answer by Rory Young:

WARNING! This contains graphic images. It is not for children!

WARNING! This contains graphic images and is not for children!

There are two types of poachers.

Meat poachers poach mainly plains game to sell the meat or to eat themselves.
They are best dealt with by “normal” methods of law-enforcement, education, poverty alleviation and even integration into the wildlife management system.

These people are for the most part hungry and this type of poaching can be brought under control to the extent of game populations and biodiversity not being threatened. However, as in the case of the DR Congo and many West African countries, the bush-meat trade can get out of control. This is in large part due to a lack of will, effort and/or ability of the governments concerned to limit and regulate the practice.
Meat poaching is also tied to the poaching of gorillas for “muti” (traditional medicine). In the case of the mountain gorillas, the problem is more akin to the elephant and rhino poaching, requiring similar strategies and tactics to combat it.

 The bodies of four mountain gorillas killed in the Virunga National Park July, 2007

Rhino and elephant poachers hunt for the rhino horn and ivory to sell on the international black market. The ivory goes to the Far East and is used for trinkets and jewellery. The rhino horn goes either to Yemen to be used to make handles for traditional daggers (relatively small quantities) or to the Far East be used in traditional medicines (large quantities).

Rhino poached and butchered in 2011 in South Africa with her calf. (

These poachers are usually ex-guerilla fighters or the like and are well equipped with fully automatic weapons, heavy calibre hunting rifles and at times even rocket propelled grenades. The RPGs and fully automatic assault rifles are not suitable for hunting and invariably wound, maim and cause suffering long drawn-out death due to infection and blood loss. (I have just written an article for African Expedition Magazine about what it is like to have to go and put down such animals. I will post the link on my Blog as soon as it is up). 

Increasingly White South African poachers with a background in wildlife, using helicopters, have been encountered.

The purpose of fully automatic assault rifles and RPGs is of course also for use against Parks rangers and scouts, army, police or anyone else that may try to stop them.

The policy of African countries has either been to:

1. Try and arrest the poachers. This is usually impossible and results in the scouts and rangers losing morale and and avoiding confrontations. The reason is that when tracking a group of poachers the advantage is all with the poachers as they simply have to lay an ambush on their own tracks. Walking along for long periods knowing that the enemy is directly in front of you and can easily open fire at any time really frays your nerves.

The only way round this problem really is to have helicopter and other air support and to “leap-frog” with an airborne tracking team and stop group who move ahead and cross-grain at potential sites, thus narrowing down the location and eventually cornering them. The poachers of course have counter-tactics such as splitting up and each going in a different direction.

Zimbabwe Airforce Chopper and crew.

Such air support is expensive and invariably provided by the military who are usually not brought in to arrest people. 

It is no coincidence that the countries that follow this policy of only arresting poachers also have the biggest poaching problem.

2. Shoot on sight. Zimbabwe was most famous for this policy and the military has been used to provide air and ground support for anti-poaching operations. It is no coincidence that the countries that follow this policy have had the most success in curbing rhino horn and ivory poaching. There are increasing calls for other African countries to adopt such a position. See: Minister calls for shoot to kill policy in Botswana

Dead Poacher

Now here is my own two cents worth. If groups of criminals crossing into your country, armed to the teeth and with a tendency to fight rather than surrender and if that is leading to the extinction of a species and increased lawlessness then shoot them on sight.

The problem has to be treated as a priority and a threat to “homeland security” and all branches of the armed services in the affected countries must be directed to support the Parks officers. It is a war and needs to be fought as a war.

I have answered this specifically as asked, i.e. dealing with the poachers. I answered another question separately about dealing with the problem of Elephant poaching in Africa in general:

How does one stop a charging buffalo?

English: The African buffalo, affalo, M'bogo o...

English: The African buffalo, affalo, M’bogo or Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is a large African bovine. Photo taken in Tanzania (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Answer by Rory Young:

I will give the answer in terms of self defense against a charging Cape Buffalo. This assumes there is no option but to shoot as the animal is in a full charge and that you are armed with a .375 H&H or larger and there is no good tree next to you.

The Cape Buffalo kills more people in Africa than any other mammal after hippos.
It charges at approximately 56km/h.
Shooting it through the heart in a full charge will not necessarily stop it in time.
I have seen a buffalo that run 80 meters after being shot through the heart. (see Problem Buffalo Article).
Therefore the only way to stop it dead is to shoot it in the brain.
The brain is 12cm in diameter.

Because it is moving towards you at 56km/h, the brain is only 12cm in diameter and the head is moving up and down, it is best to wait until it gets very close and drops its head to gore you. This is usually 10 to 20 meters away.
The best way to visualize the correct shot placement is to imagine a line from one ear to the opposing eye and for the other eye and ear. Where these two lines cross is the brain no matter what the position of the head is.

You need to hold your nerve and shot perfectly accurately because if you miss you are dead. If you turn and run you are dead.

Unfortunately for me I had to do this twice in one day in 1993.
I was together with another ranger-guide, Jesse Zvikonyuakwa. We were investigating reports of two “problem” buffalo in one of the CAMPFIRE areas near Matusadona National Park and had been warned that they were injured and had chased a couple of people up trees.

Unfortunately for us they had moved into Jess Bush, a type of very thick thorny vegetation. It is a common tactic for injured buffalos to take refuge in dense bush and it is extremely dangerous to pursue them in such areas as they are extremely aggressive, have acute senses, are very cunning and it is almost impossible to move quietly through Jess (it often involves crawling).

However, it was our job and we had no choice but to go after them so in we went.

The first one came flying at us through the Jess and came out into a small clearing about twenty meters from me. It dropped its head to hit me at about fifteen meters at which point I shot it.

We found the second one about 5 hours later in a much bigger clearing.He was on the other side of a small valley, about 80 meters away. This is far to shoot with a heavy calibre rifle and open sites and normally would not be done because of the chance of wounding. I gave the go ahead to Jesse to shoot though because the animal was already injured (meat poachers had tried to kill both animals causing the wounds), dangerous to the local population and surrounded by Jess bush, where it would be more difficult and dangerous to find him.

Jesse fired and the bull took off for the thick bush heading diagonally away from us. I sprinted after it because I really didn’t want it going into that Jess.

The bull caught my movement and veered round to charge at me. I stopped and prepared to shoot once it got close and dropped its head.

Instead, it fell to the ground about twenty meters from me. I lowered my rifle and just then Jess fired another round to make sure it was dead. Instead it got up again and came at me a second time. By the time I raised my rifled and aimed it was only 7 or 8 meters away so when I fired, even though my shot placement was spot on, the momentum of the charge carried it several more meters and it literally ended up at my feet.

I never had to shoot a buffalo before or after that day in self defense and ever since have not followed buffalo, wounded or healthy into Jess bush.

I reckon, if I do it might be third time lucky for the buffaloes.

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Do hyenas and canines hunt in packs because of their size, the size of their prey and terrain limitations? Also, how different are the hu…

Answer by Rory Young:

This is a really good question but also difficult because of the three species of hyaenas only the Spotted Hyena is gregarious and hunts in groups. Also, Hyaenas are more closely related to cats than canines. The behaviour differs to both cats and canines. I will refer only to the Spotted Hyaena as I believe this is what the question refers to.

With Spotted Hyaenas hunting usually initiated by one animal and a few others will then join in but more likely to be successful with larger game. Hyaenas do not use coordinated teamwork to bring down prey.  In other words the group activity is more a case of opportunism on the part of the others joining the hunt than a team effort per se.

They do not hunt in groups because of their size, the size of their prey and terrain limitations and this is evident from the wide variety of the size and type of prey. They are simply opportunistic/versatile and will hunt in whatever manner is more likely to be successful and in the case of larger game this will more likely be successful for a group of hyaenas and in the case of smaller game will often be more successful hunting singly.

African Wild Dogs (Lycaon pictus) are cursorial hunters, running down their prey in coordinated groups. They rarely hunt singly and there is much “ritual” or group “psyching up” prior to hunting, reinforcing the group bonds and “oneness”. They work as a a team and this extends to everything they do. They allow the youngest to eat first rather than the most dominant, which I believe is unique.

Wild Dogs will put all their efforts into raising one litter which is produced by the alpha male and alpha female. This includes dogs regurgitating food for the litter, mother and any other animals that have stayed behind. They also look after sick animals by regurgitating food for them and allowing them to remain at the den when the others hunt. There is a male and a female hierarchy and only the alpha male and alpha female mate with all the efforts of the entire pack going into raising the one litter.

Spotted Hyaenas are a matriarchal society and all females are dominant over all males. There is one alpha female and although there will be a dominant male among the males there is no alpha pair. The females are larger and have a pseudo-penis, mounting other females and males to assert dominance. Mating takes place through the pseudo genitalia with the male sliding under the female  ( Sexual behavior of spotted hyenas).

Spotted Hyaena clans are closely knit but nowhere near as closely as Wild Dog packs and overall the behaviour is different in a number of significant ways.

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How can we describe animals’ different personalities without anthropomorphizing them?

Answer by Rory Young:

I find this question intriguing because, I have to admit, after many years of watching animals, I have a habit of doing the opposite. I don't look at animals and anthropomorphise them I look at the people and zoomorphise them.  The animals must become the focus and we have to separate ourselves from our focus on people.  Spend a long time with them and out of contact with people especially and one begins to see them truly as they are.

Every time I encounter a new person I reflect on what animal they remind me of.
Some are the hippos, plump and gregarious.  Some are like hyaenas, opportunistic and elbowing their buddies aside for dominance. There are the old elephant cows, just like hospital matrons, always in a hurry, no nonsense from anyone and always tired. There are many like baboons, teenagers to a "t". There are occasionally leopards, watching quietly and unnoticed yet understanding everyone else better than they themselves. There are warthogs, I believe their counterparts work "in the city". There are the guineafowls, just like the afternoon ladies club… Monkeys – gangs. Honey Badgers – fighters. Rhinos – Stephen Fry (they are a lot smarter, funnier and complex than one would at first expect).

Mothers of course are all alike but I can't help but notice sometimes how some are more like one animal mother than another.

I'm afraid I could go on forever on this, so I had better not. I do it all the time and there is always an animal for everyone..

I have spent long periods with little or no contact with people and you really do go a bit (or very) wild and can have big problems (and very funny situations) when you get back to civilization, but it is really the one way to get close to nature – on your own without any contact with other people.

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How do animals in the wild avoid eating anything poisonous?

Answer by Rory Young:

Animals either know instinctively what not to eat or they learn from experience by trying and learning or they are taught or all of these, depending on the animal.

Regarding instinct, let’s look at the Cape Buffalo as an example. They know instinctively that grass is edible and that it tastes good. They are unlikely to try eating leaves or anything else unless starving, in which case they will often attempt to eat plants that wouldn’t normally appeal to them and can die from attempting to eat poisonous plants.

For animals eating plants that they are not used to let’s look at Impala. They are browsers and there are many different species of plants to choose from, literally hundreds in their habitat. Impala and other antelope always nibble a tiny bit of a plant before feeding on it. As poisonous plants are usually bitter they will discover that in the first nibble and move on. This way they learn which plants are the best to eat. They also do this because many plants are known to use tannin when browsed upon  to make themselves unpalatable. One tree species that has been studied and shown to do this is the Mopani. See:…

Lastly lets look at elephants. Because elephants only absorb as little as five percent of the nutrients of what they eat, they need a wide variety of foods (and a large quantity) to get all the nutrients they need. All elephants grow up in the herd and learn from their elders not only what can and can’t be eaten but also where to go at what time of year to find certain foods. They will even dig up minerals from the ground in order to supplement their diets. I recommend Cynthia Moss’ Elephant Memories as a great read if you want to know more about this and other behaviour of African Elephants.

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Do birds in the wild alert each other to the presence of predators that do not necessarily hunt them, such as lions, and if so do other a…

Answer by Rory Young:

Yes, they do. Many gregarious and other species of birds will alert each other to anything that looks even vaguely threatening or out-of-place.

Once they learn more about a new creature they encounter, they will begin to relax if they find that it is not interested in them. A good example of how adaptable and able to learn is the Oxpecker. When feeding on ticks on Cape Buffalo they will warn the buffalo of an approaching human. However, Oxpeckers feeding on ticks on cattle will not warn cows of an approaching human.

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