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. (http://www.wildlifeextra.com/go/news/south-africa-poaching.html#cr)

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: https://youngrory.wordpress.com/2013/04/17/what-would-effectively-stop-elephant-poaching-in-africa/

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What would effectively stop elephant poaching in Africa?

Answer by Rory Young:

I mulled over how to answer this for some time because there are just so many things that can and must be done, I decided to look at the broader picture because no matter the effort of the brave few on the ground, without the will of the world’s nations to put an end to ivory and other poaching it is a losing battle.

There is currently a struggle between two very polarized groups of African countries (and their corners) on how to deal with the problem.

Firstly it is important to look at the three links in the ivory supply chain. These are the poachers, the traffickers and the consumers.

Firstly with regards to the consumers.
There are two approaches to the problem.

The first approach, promoted mostly by Kenya, focuses on ending the international legal trade in ivory.This ivory is from legally culled or hunted elephants in countries with large populations. It is believed that by doing so demand will dramatically reduce or dry up altogether.Those who support the theory believe that demand will dry up and their will therefore be no more demand.

The argument against this approach is that the demand will always be there and that the supply of legal ivory should be carefully controlled and funds funneled into wildlife management.

To give some context to these different approaches we also need to look at the different situations between these groups of countries. Zimbabwe for example has over 80’000 elephants and the population increases at about 3% per annum. Zimbabwe is in favour of limited trade in legal ivory. Kenya on the other hand has around 12’000 elephants, the population is decreasing rapidly and the Kenyan government is totally against any trade.

Where both groups agree is that the countries where this illegal ivory is going are not doing enough to discourage its sale.

Next we need to look at the traffickers. These are smugglers of just the same ilk as drug or blood diamond traffickers. However, their are much fewer controls and and because many of the States these traffickers come from have a very disinterested views of wildlife conservation, they are much more easily able to collude with the authorities in the countries they are shipping to. Like any illicit product, it is relatively easy to get it out. Controls and checks are usually at ports of entry not exit and as a result the methods, systems and infrastructure are not in place to stop exports.

The big problem again is the lack of will to get tough at the countries where the ivory is going. The customs departments are just not motivated to arrest and charge traffickers.

Thirdly we need to look at the poaching itself. The approach to stopping the poaching again differs tremendously between the two groups of countries mentioned before. In Kenya an ivory poacher will likely get off with a fine. In Zimbabwe he could be shot if he doesn’t surrender immediately contact is made with him and then he will face up to 7 years in prison (typically 5).

As you can imagine the group of countries with the vast majority of elephants also has the toughest policies for dealing with poaching. Most of them also support limited trade in ivory.

Whether supporting this is right or wrong, it will be impossible for the Kenya group to convince the others to change this until Kenya itself shows that they are really doing what needs to be done to fight the poaching itself. Iain Douglas-Hamilton recently said that Kenya is all that is standing between the poachers and the large Southern African populations. If that is true then God help us because if Kenya’s way of fighting poaching is with fines then they will have no elephants left soon.

Now to answer your question. I believe that Kenya has held an idealistic policy that has also not been supported by tough action. Realistic pragmatism is needed and a will to save what is left.

There needs to be an all out war on poachers in East Africa, supported by the African Union, as it is a cross border problem with harsh penalties imposed.

There needs to be international pressure and action against the traffickers and the nations that allow them to ply their trade.

With regards the consumers, the ivory itself needs to be made untouchable, taboo, illegal or dangerous. That can only happen if the governments of those buying get serious. Whether or not the trade should be banned, there should only be allowed a tiny amount of extremely expensive legal ivory sold to these countries. Any revenue should be proven to have been channeled back into anti poaching and other conservation efforts.

It is possible to win this war. I mentioned that Zimbabwe has 80’000+ elephants. Well, in 1900 there were less than 500 left.

The white rhino was reintroduced into Zimbabwe from South Africa after being wiped out completely and the Black Rhino was reintroduced into South Africa from Zimbabwe after being wiped out.

So, this war can be won but to win it needs money will and champions. All are in
short supply. What it doesn’t need is procrastination, half-hearted effort, hesitation or denial. It is a war just like any other war, it needs action and massive support to win it.

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