What is poaching and what can be done about it?

Answer by Rory Young:

Here are some excerpts from our new book "A Field Manual for Anti-Poaching Activities" that deal with these questions.


Definition of poaching
Poaching is the illegal removal of natural resources.
That may sound quite simple.  However, it can be a very complex issue.  Poaching is undertaken by a variety of different people for a variety of reasons, and must be understood within a cultural context.  Poaching can include the illegal removal from an ecosystem of; wild animals, wood, minerals, sand, water, plants – in fact the removal of any element of the natural ecosystem in contravention of local laws.
Fighting poaching is not just a process of arresting poachers; it must be combined with a broad effort to motivate people towards a more positive relationship with the natural environment, for the benefit of both human and ecosystem health.  This is underpinned by educating the human communities that produce the poachers, as well as the communities that consume the goods illegally obtained by poachers, as to the damage they cause to the local and global environment.
With the above in mind we should first endeavour to understand why natural resources extraction is and should be allowed or disallowed by the law of the state, or by any individual or organization that has authority over natural resources.

Environmental Reasons for Protecting Ecosystems
Natural ecosystems form the basis for all life on earth.  The species that live in, and rely on, those ecosystems create a complex web of interactions meaning that each species is reliant on many others for their survival.  Our own existence clings to the fragile towers made up of the myriad of different life forms with which we share the planet and the ecosystem services that functioning ecosystems provide.  By destroying individual species, or changing the numbers of a species, we change their impact on their ecosystems and we will eventually cause the towers to crumble and topple, bringing others down in the process.  As we are intertwined with these ecosystems we will in the process destroy ourselves.  For anyone to believe that humans can exist without healthy natural areas is stupid beyond belief.
We must protect the biodiversity and health of our natural environment for our own well-being.  That said we cannot expect man to return all areas to nature, but we can and must ensure that what natural treasures still exist are protected and maintained in a healthy state.  This is why governments and other organizations create protected areas; they are intended to ensure the survival of important ecosystems and their components for perpetuity.
Removing any component of these natural areas, most especially keystone species, will have a devastating and often unpredictable domino effect that will degrade both these areas themselves and contribute to further change of our human environments.
Change to the human environment inevitably leads to disease, hunger, poverty, and war.  A good example of this is desertification in North Africa; the southerly extension of the Sahara and other North African dry areas, which has caused deadly stresses to the peoples inhabiting the boundaries of these places.  In order to survive, pastoral peoples have been forced to relocate south to areas inhabited by other ethnic groups, thus putting strain on local resources and inter-ethnic relations with the result being hunger, poverty and warfare.

Economic Reasons for Protecting Wildlife
It is a mistake to argue that the continued existence of natural ecosystems should be dependent on their ability to generate income for the states and communities where they are found.  We need them whether they generate money for us or not; for carbon sequestration, water purification, waste disposal, nutrient cycling and genetic resources, amongst other ecosystem services on which we rely.  However, there are significant economic benefits to doing so.
Well-managed wildlife areas generate income and jobs for the state, private enterprise, and for local communities through both consumptive and non-consumptive use.  
In the case of consumptive use, this is only beneficial if it does not compromise the overall objective of protecting biodiversity, the health of the ecosystem as a whole, or that of individual species.  There are many cases today of over-exploited areas where utilization has been allowed to degrade ecosystems and reduce wild fauna and flora populations below optimal levels.  Very often this is blamed on poachers.  Although the balance may have been tipped by poaching, the truth is that in many cases the poaching should have been controlled and the utilization levels reduced until such time as it becomes viable to resume.  Legalized over-utilization is unethical, self-destructive and defeats the objective of sustainable economic and ecological benefit.  Many community wildlife areas enduring economic difficulty are tempted to over-sell an area so as to generate income. This short-sightedness is a clear case of ‘killing the goose that lays the golden egg’.

Altruistic Reasons for Protecting Wildlife
Quite simply, we should protect it because it is beautiful, it is fascinating, it is our heritage, it provides us with enjoyment, spiritual fulfilment, or any other reason that compels us. 
Very often any of these sentiments can be found enshrined in law.  Although this may not be a strong reason to deter poachers from poaching, it canbe a sentiment from which funds for anti-poaching and voluntary assistance can be generated.  It often can and does not only lead to the protection of wild areas and ecosystems but also ensures that they are cared for and managed.


The Objective of Anti-Poaching
The objective of anti-poaching should always be first and foremost the prevention of poaching.  Prevention is achieved in the following ways; through education, through dealing with socio-economic factors that encourage poaching, by stopping people from actually poaching and lastly, through deterrence.  Education and deterrence both come before apprehension or interdiction or the actual protection of wildlife on the ground, although these last elements may be part of the reason for deterrence.  Actual arrest operations are less likely to be necessary if a combination of powerful deterrent, awareness and education exists.
This manual primarily deals with stopping poaching on the ground and deterring poaching.  However, the necessity of education and awareness as well as other factors are always intertwined with these objectives.  For example a crucial part of operations, pro-active investigation, is dependent on good relations with the community, which in turn is usually a result of educating the community about the benefits and importance of protecting wildlife and wild areas, and by raising levels of awareness within those communities of poaching problems being experienced.  This education and raising of awareness leads to the cooperation that allows for good pro-active investigation whereby even unpaid informants provide information on poaching-related activity.

A Complex Crime Requiring Intelligent Solutions
Poaching is not a new phenomenon.  Laws prohibiting the removal of natural resources or the hunting of particular species have existed for centuries.
A classic tale of poaching is the story of Robin Hood.  Although a hero, he and his merry men were, despite being merry and giving to the poor, poachers.  We can learn lessons for anti-poaching from these tales even today.
In his efforts to beat Robin, the Sherriff of Nottingham makes many crucial errors, which are still often made today; he allowed the perception of Robin as being a part and parcel of the community in opposition to the authority to become established. The Sheriff therefore not only had to struggle with Robin, he also had to struggle against the whole community.  Robin’s greatest asset was neither his ability with a bow, nor his band of merry men.  It wasn’t even his ability to hide in and survive off the Sherwood Forest.  No, his greatest asset was the support of the people.  Today it is equally important that the poachers are seen as the threat and the authorities as the representatives of and partners of the community, instead of the other way around.
Robin Hood and his team were more skilled in the Forest and constantly outwitted the Sherriff’s men.  Today we see untrained and poorly-equipped scouts being sent out to tackle well-armed, well-equipped, and very experienced poaching teams.  Sending an untrained man after such groups is both irresponsible and a waste of time, resources and even human lives.
The fact that the Sheriff of Nottingham failed to apprehend and then ensure that Robin was indeed punished means there was a failure not only to stop Robin’s poaching, but also a failure of deterrence.  In order for a deterrent to truly work, people need to see that there is a high risk of being apprehended, and then, if apprehended, that there is a strong likelihood of being prosecuted and punished.  The punishment itself needs to be such that it will deter a person from committing a crime.  In the case of medieval England the punishment of death for killing the King’s deer was, of course, a severe punishment.  However, a punishment itself, no matter how severe, is unlikely to deter if the perpetrator is both unlikely to be apprehended and unlikely to be successfully prosecuted.  In spite of the harsh penalty, the sheriff was unable to catch Robin.  A stiff penalty can only be a deterrent if the perpetrator is likely to be caught and prosecuted for his crime. 
Most importantly of all, if the Sherriff was to stand any chance of beating Robin he would have needed a clear, comprehensive, pragmatic, and objective doctrine for combating the overall problem of poaching.  Instead, the story tells us that it became a personal vendetta based on greed, with the evil Sheriff representing the authorities and the good Robin representing the poor.  Robin won at every turn.  In terms of pro-active investigation the Sheriff had no clue about Robin’s movements, weaknesses, enemies, or habits.  When a crime was committed it was on Robin’s terms and in Robin’s favoured environment.  He was not pressured into doing his thing on prepared ground.  In the pursuit, Robin had all the advantages; the Sheriff and his men did not have the skills to follow him. However, just as is often the case today, the Sheriff’s men were better equipped, armed and outnumbered Robin and his men. This is the classic mistake made over and over again; it does not matter how many heavily armed and well-equipped men with battle skills are sent in, if they can’t find the poachers it is just a waste of time, effort and money.

A Comprehensive Doctrine
Poaching is a complex crime, requiring organization and multiple participants.  This complexity is poaching’s greatest weakness; to effectively counteract poaching this weakness must be exploited. 
Let us look at the different parts and aspects of a typical professional and established cross-border ivory poaching operation:
First of all there is the money; someone funds the operation.  Money is needed for food, transport, wages for porters, ammunition, look-outs, bribes for officials, weapons and equipment such as communications devices, clothing, containers, axes, knives and more.
Secondly there are the weapons.  These are commonly of two types; for hunting and for defence.  The hunting weapon is often a legally purchased, heavy calibre sporting rifle illegally supplied (sometimes rented) to the poaching team by a licensed owner.  The defensive weapons are often illegally held assault rifles or other military weapons kept hidden by others when not in use, usually in remote locations.
Thirdly, there is the ammunition.  While ammunition for the hunting weapon can often be legally purchased, ammunition for an AK-47 can be much more problematic for the poacher.  This cannot easily be purchased legally and therefore is often purchased from people holding old caches left over from wars, from cross-border smugglers, or from unscrupulous military personnel.
Next, there is the food and equipment.  This needs to be purchased, stored, packed and transported.  By its very nature it makes the group or an individual stand out and is therefore a risk as it will often give away the poaching teams’ intentions.  Any risk to the poacher is an opportunity for the anti-poaching unit.
Transport usually entails hiring a vehicle to get to the drop-off point or to cross major rivers.  The owners of the transport have to be paid and of course paid well to keep their mouths shut.
The team itself will be composed of: ‘the hunter’ who will do the actual killing, the defenders who will fight off any rangers or other threats, and porters to carry food, water and the ivory.
Already it is possible to see how many people are involved and we have only looked at the actual poaching expedition and not at the smuggling, manufacturing and other parts of the process, all of which mean more people ‘in’ on the crime. 
To successfully suppress serious poaching in an area it needs to be tackled at as many stages of the process as possible. 
The Adoption and Use of New Technology
The current development of drones and other technology is moving at an exponential rate.  The question is for what task is a particular technology going to be more effective and how cost-effective will it be?  It should of course be used if it will allow the anti-poaching process to be more successful than using less modern methods, and as long as resources allow for the improvement.  Most importantly, it has to be legal.  Many countries have yet to legalize the use of drones and some have actually already disallowed them.
It is important to understand that the process itself does not change, and that any technology is still used for specific purpose within the same processes.  Therefore the first question to be asked is what role will it play and what specific tasks will it be required to fulfil? 
How does it compare with existing technology?  For example, would a drone be more effective at silently observing and following a poacher in a rainforest than a local tracker armed with a radio?  Perhaps not, but it may be very effective at following a column of poachers moving by vehicle at high speed through an arid area.
There are no “wonder weapons” that will themselves put an end to poaching.  The doctrine doesn’t change, just the tools, and the tools need to be both useful and put to best use.
Whilst this field manual deals with the resources most commonly available to rangers, it does not preclude the adoption and adaptation of new technologies to its doctrine.  It is crucial in the face of the growing problem that wildlife protection strategy and tactics, the tools and skills employed and any technologies that prove useful and effective be used to lessen the risk to personnel, control cost and, of course, enhance the effectiveness of anti-poaching activities.
Thorough Understanding of the Problem and Knowledge of the Perpetrators
Good solutions may only be found if there is thorough and clear knowledge of all aspects of the poaching in an area, with a comprehensive understanding of all the resources available to the anti-poaching effort.  The very first and most crucial part of the anti-poaching effort is the pro-active investigation and the subsequent Information Preparation of the Conservation Area (IPCA). ‘Know thine enemy!’ Picture two scenarios:
In the first a highly motivated investigations team builds a detailed knowledge and understanding of all the poaching in an area, including who is doing the poaching, when and how they are doing it, where they enter and exit the area, where they are from and who they are.  This information is then used by a mediocre leader to create a plan for mediocre tracking / pursuit and apprehension teams to attempt to locate and apprehend the poachers.
In the second scenario a mediocre investigative team puts together an incomplete picture of the poaching in an area with vague and incorrect information.  A competent leader then puts together the best plan he can for competent tracking / pursuit and apprehension teams to attempt to locate and apprehend.
So who would be most likely to achieve success?  Assuming these are small units operating in a very large area, then the best chance lies with the first scenario.  The reason for this is that no matter how good he is, if the leader has no knowledge and understanding of the poachers then he is dependent on good luck to find them; and finding them is the key!  It doesn’t matter how good the teams are out there if they have no idea where to look for the poachers!  If a team is in an area of high activity at a point where poacher movements bottle-neck, and at the right time, then it is more likely to succeed than if it is randomly deployed or according to some unintelligent grid plan.
Well Developed Relevant Competencies
The more capable the people are in all aspects of the effort, the more likely they will be to succeed.  Expecting people without the necessary skills and training to succeed is, once again, hoping that good luck will prevail.  For example, in recent years it has become popular amongst governments to deploy soldiers to patrol areas for poachers.  Unless these soldiers have been specifically trained to track as a team then it will again come down to luck.  A highly skilled, well-trained tracking team on the other hand will have a greater chance of locating and following a poaching group, thus allowing its movements to be assessed and an apprehension plan developed and implemented.
The Full Process
The anti-poaching effort is broken down very simply into:

  1. Proactive information gathering to      understand the nature of the poaching threat;

  1. Reactive information gathering on      specific poaching activities;

  1. Deployments – these are putting      the right teams of competent people into the field based on application of      information gathering and understanding;

  1. Tracking – the use of      ‘bush-craft’ to locate and track poachers from the smallest sign of their      presence;

  1. Pursuit & Apprehension – the      skills of tracking and apprehension teams combine to pursue and capture      poachers;

  1. Reactive information gathering      following apprehension;

  1. Prosecution – we can catch all      the poachers in the world, but if we cannot successfully prosecute them      then we are but an irritant to their business;

  1. Preventing and deterring      poaching in the first place.

We are giving the book away free to anti-poaching units and 50% of sales to the public goes to anti-poaching training and operations. If you would like to support our work please visit Quorans For A Cause.

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