A systems analysis of the causes and effects of poaching in Southern Africa, with the aim of developing a holistic product or strategy recommendation.

By Jeremy B., UW MDes Candidate.

December 16, 2009

Poaching is getting worse¹ and there’s no easy fix. It’s a complex, global issue, entwined with greed, corruption, organized crime, and poverty. Creative and holistic approaches are desperately needed², as current approaches are simply not working³. Emerging technologies show great promise in anti-poaching applications but should not be modeled on traditional top-down conservation strategies. New technologies must address the multifaceted nature of this issue and not merely the symptoms of a broken system.

Why should we care?

The issue of wildlife poaching isn’t just of concern to wildlife conservationists or African nations. The USA is the second-largest market for illegal wildlife products and a major shipping conduit of these products to consumers in Asia⁴. Recent laws have sought to combat the number of illegal wildlife products entering Washington state ports⁵, and the proceeds of wildlife poaching are funding terrorist organizations that are deemed to be a national security threat⁶.

The issue of poaching and wildlife trafficking is surrounded by immense challenges and a variety of perspectives on potential strategies that may remedy it. This essay outlines a number of these challenges, contributing factors, and strategies, framing the latter in consideration of potential impact, opposing arguments and unintended consequences.

Transnational Politics:

“Reducing a complex struggle against trans­national criminal syndicates to a ‘war’ between poachers and rangers over-simplifies an extraordinarily difficult challenge that requires much greater global and regional co-operation.” ¹ ᵖ⁵⁴

CITES Elephants in the Dust p.48, accessed via Poaching Facts

Poaching is an inherently international issue. Animals roam across borders⁸, poachers breach borders¹⁹ ¹⁰ supply chains traverse many nations¹¹, demand is fueled by increased buying power¹² ¹³ and economic growth¹⁴ in East Asia, organized crime syndicates involved in poaching operate across the globe³ and the proceeds of illegal wildlife trafficking fund militant and criminal activity the world round⁶.

Many African nations have been downsizing conservation areas¹⁵. Africa’s 8400 conservation areas amount to half the size of the USA¹⁵, and managing such vast areas is challenging¹⁶ ¹⁷ and expensive². These same nations have other demands competing for funding, such as healthcare and education¹⁵. Even South Africa only spends 1% of its annual budget on environmental affairs¹.

Anti-poaching measures aren’t likely to make politicians popular with their constituents, especially in nations that suffer from human-wildlife conflict (e.g. damaged crops¹⁸ and human deaths⁸), and where entire villages are kept afloat by the proceeds of poaching⁹. Building public support and enacting conservation policies is a ‘tough sell’, especially when corrupt officials benefit from poaching¹⁹ ¹², conservation land has a bitter colonial legacy², and continued membership in the CITES treaty means forgoing the windfall that would come from selling the stockpiles of seized ivory that many source-nations posess⁸ ¹⁸.

The Urgency

“Time is something that rhinos don’t have. At the current rate of decimation, the species would unlikely survive the next 20 to 25 years.” ²¹

Brent Stirton in Christy³

Poaching throughout Africa is getting worse, in fact, it has doubled since 200⁷¹² and between 2007–2013, rhino poaching has increased 7000% in South Africa⁷. At the current annual rate of 8% population decline²⁰, we will lose the elephant in ten years⁷ and the rhino in ten⁷ to 25 years²¹, by some estimates.

Many regulatory efforts to curb demand and tackle organized crime have failed²², and international treaties such as CITES have lost their effectiveness²³. The UN general assembly has now declared wildlife trafficking a priority issue²², and the US government has instigated a variety of initiatives⁴⁶.

The increase in poaching is fueled by increased demand from Asia’s “Nouveau riche”¹⁴, and wealthy class¹², as well as enabling technologies such as e-commerce, social media¹³, cryptocurrency, and the dark web²⁴.

In the 19th century, there were 12 million elephants in Africa, now there’s just 3% remaining ²⁵. Will the extinction of these species become our generation’s legacy?

An Arms Race

“We will fight fire with fire” — David Mabunda, South Africa National Parks (Sanparks) CEO, 2010, quoted in Rademeyer¹

Adrian Steirn for Alliance Earth, accessed via The Guardian

Between 2006 and 2016, approximately 750 rangers were killed in action by commercial poachers and militias²⁶ -claiming their slice of the $19 billion a year industry that is poaching²⁷. It is now the fourth most lucrative illegal enterprise²⁷, and anti-poaching units are increasingly finding themselves outgunned by poachers as the stakes increase¹².

Commercial and syndicate poachers are equipping themselves with rocket-propelled grenades, rocket launchers, M16 assault rifles, night vision goggles¹², helicopters, explosives, and encrypted communications²⁸. In response, anti-poaching units are fighting back with grenade launchers¹, drones²⁹, paratroopers³⁰, radar³¹ and helicopter gunships²².

Behind the scenes, new technologies are being developed to fight back, such as AI¹⁶, incursion sensors, IoT, machine learning³², cloud computing¹⁶, and forensics technologies³³,³. To combat the poaching industry’s use of technologies such as e-commerce, social media¹³, cryptocurrency, and the dark web²⁴, technology companies such as Instagram are making changes to prevent their platforms from contributing to illegal wildlife trafficking ¹³.

This escalation in weaponry and technology is causing rangers to use more aggressive tactics¹². The human cost is clear, as 200 suspected poachers were killed in Kruger national park alone between 2010 and 201⁵¹. There is also an increased risk of collateral casualties¹² in addition to the dangers that poachers and rangers face in this feud.

Legalization & Market Manipulation.

“We have done all in our power [to stop poaching], and doing the same thing every day isn’t working.” Edna Molewa, South Africa’s Environment Minister, quoted in Christy³.

Brent Stirton in Actman¹³

Zimbabwe is one of five African nations calling for a suspension to the CITES ban on trading ivory. They are sitting on a stockpile worth $600 million¹⁸. Rhino farmers are also banking on this law change³. The theory is that this money could fund conservation efforts, however, there’s no evidence that this will, in fact, happen³⁴, and past legal transactions have backfired and stimulated the market³.

Other strategies include devaluing illicit horn and ivory by flooding the market with synthetic, lab-grown versions of these materials¹⁴. However, in the case of lab-grown diamonds, this approach hasn’t successfully curbed demand for the authentic version¹⁴, and some worry that a synthetic version of ivory and rhino horn will diminish the stigma of owning the authentic version²³, and potentially cause the material to be used in more products, thereby increasing demand for both synthetic and original¹⁴.

The introduction of a parallel market of legal wildlife products will likely act as a smokescreen for the original illicit versions²³, adding pressure to law enforcement agencies that are already failing to effectively tackle poaching³. There are doubts that even South Africa would be able to regulate and enforce such a parallel market³⁴.

Another proposed strategy to manipulate the market is to replace demand for ivory and horn with other products, such as Jade, for making high-value ornaments. However, the value of ivory is deeply ingrained in some cultures³⁵ and there may be ethical considerations to this strategy, such as causing the unemployment of Chinese ivory carvers and permanent erasure of ivory craft²³ and promoting the jade industry, which is known for its human rights abuses³⁶.

Demand Reduction

“It’s poachers who kill them not me, I only buy it.” Survey response in Burgess³⁶

‘A shopkeeper in Hoi An, Viet Nam, explaining the power of Tigers in traditional medicine.’ Burgess³⁶ ᵖ⁶⁸ Photograph by Steven Broad

Reducing market demand for illegal wildlife products is necessary⁶, but not easy. “Public concern about the environment is at a 20 year low”³⁷, and an awareness campaign could certainly be effective in addressing this apathy³⁸, especially considering that 56% of Chinese in one survey still want to buy ivory, and a third aren’t even aware that elephants are endangered²⁵.

The main markets for rhino horn and elephant ivory are China and Vietnam. Rhino horn is used as a traditional medicine to treat all manner of maladies, and ivory is valued for social, cultural and economic reasons³⁵. These values are deeply-ingrained, and scientists warn that these consumers won’t react rationally to attempts to change their behaviors, even when presented with facts, laws or the cruelty involved in poaching³⁶.

Public awareness campaigns have tended to take a western perspective³⁹ and focus on values familiar to the conservation community, rather than consumers of illegal wildlife products³⁶. Whilst they may increase awareness, these campaigns struggle to affect behavioral change³⁶, as we tend to turn away from confronting truths, believe the message is intended for someone else³⁶, or they leave us feeling overwhelmed with hopelessness³⁷. Moreover, Campaigns that successfully reach consumers of illegal wildlife products can backfire, as reaction-theory causes people to do the opposite of what they are told to and cements their opposition to it³⁶.

Changing values and behaviors won’t be quick⁶ and there are those that believe that it is too resource intensive²¹ and that certain species don’t have the luxury of the time it will take to significantly reduce consumer demand²¹ ¹⁴.

The True Cost of Enforcement

“I’m a breadwinner. There’s no one else to support the family. Once I die, it’s over.” Thomas Shitlhabani in Serino⁹

Wildlife traffickers arrested in Cameroon. Brent Stirton.

Anti-poaching enforcement is arguably the most visible face of the war on poaching. Media and “securocrat”²² politicians tend to focus on militarization³⁸ and “fortress conservation”. Improved enforcement is necessary¹, it attracts donors to the cause³⁸, and is more immediate than the alternatives⁴⁰, but as with other anti-poaching strategies, it isn’t a panacea.

Conservation areas have a colonial legacy of marginalizing and excluding indigenous populations⁴¹ ². Locals have historically lost land and access to cultural sites²², burial sites and land resources⁴² to make way for wildlife conservation. Anti-poaching enforcement activities commonly include roadblocks, searching tribal lands⁴³, and arresting³ and killing poachers¹. These actions likely compound the existing antagonism, and have the potential to could create long-lasting divisions¹.

Surveys show that communities that neighbor conservation areas have negative attitudes toward conservation managers², and rangers who come from these same communities report that they are considered to be traitors⁹. Poachers often receive assistance from family and friends¹, who perceive the conservation community as valuing wild animals over their lives and livelihoods²².

Poverty is known to cause involvement in poaching⁴⁴. Fear of arrest or penalties is unlikely to affect the behaviors of the poorest poachers⁴⁴ ¹, who poach out of necessity. Whilst enforcement may act as a deterrent to those in moderate poverty, arresting the ‘breadwinner’ from any family, will likely force other family members into taking their place⁴⁴, or could cause that family to slide into absolute poverty⁴⁴.

Isolated enforcement may protect one location or one species but is unlikely to solve the issue of poaching at-scale. As with illegal drugs, when production is stopped in one place, it will pop up in another³⁸; successful enforcement in one reserve may cause poachers to move to another³², and the same is true for countries¹. As the population of one species dwindles, poachers will likely move to another lucrative species¹². Likewise, we may speculate that if the risk-to-reward ratio for poaching worsens because of successful enforcement, that the syndicates behind poaching will use their established global supply chain and network of corrupt officials¹² to traffic commodities such as drugs and weapons, which have documented overlaps¹² ³⁸.


“It’s as much about conservation as poverty relief.” Craig Spencer in Goyanes⁴⁵

The Economist

Poverty and poaching go hand-in-hand⁴⁵. It is the primary cause for those who live in adjacent communities to poach⁴⁴. Commercial poachers are recruited by transnational criminal enterprises that target desperate and indigent locals¹⁰ from communities that border conservation areas¹ ¹⁰ ²⁸. These poachers will brave high risks⁴⁴ ¹, and for their efforts will receive anything from a bag of cornmeal to $10,000, which is the equivalent of five years’ salary³².

In South Africa, where the unemployment rate is estimated at 28–38%⁴⁶, rural populations suffer from higher concentrations of poverty and face more of a struggle to find employment⁴⁷. This “spatial inequality”⁴⁸ is a holdover from the apartheid regime⁴⁹ when non-whites were forced to move away from cities⁴⁸. Rural communities that are adjacent to conservation areas tend not to benefit from the wealth that is generated⁴⁰. In fact, Kruger national park, which is the size of Israel⁵⁰ and has two million people live along its western boundary¹, employs only 2300 people³².

Subsistence poachers poach because their primary needs are not met, yet, whilst commercial poachers are also impoverished, they poach to supplement their income⁴⁴. In a survey, commercial poachers claimed that they would rather do something other than poaching to diversify their livelihoods, yet evidence suggests that providing monetary assistance to these poachers will likely result in their buying snares for more effective poaching⁴⁴, or expanding their poaching operations by employing other people². Furthermore, providing funding to alleviate poverty in these locations may promote dependency or cause population migration into that area², potentially exceeding the capacity of the funding initiative.

In a cruel twist, wildlife tourism, which accounts for 80% of annual sales of trips to Africa¹⁵, has significant potential to fuel economic growth on the continent¹⁵ ⁵¹ (and subsequently reduce poverty), but it depends upon the very wildlife populations³² ⁴⁴ that are being decimated by impoverished poachers.

Organized Crime & Justice

“The rhino war — it’s like drugs. It involves lots of cash and bribery. The whole justice system is really a frustration. We’re losing [court] cases …We’re surrounded by police stations we don’t even recognize as police stations because they’re working with the poachers.” Xolani Nicholus Funda, Chief ranger at Kruger National Park, quoted in Christy³.

Interpol operation Infra-Terra ‘most wanted’ list, accessed via Ecojust

In 2015, there were 1000 poaching arrests made in South Africa, yet this resulted in only 60 convictions³. Such failures of justice are blamed on insufficient penalties¹² ⁵², weak judicial systems¹² ⁵² that don’t take wildlife crime seriously³³ ³⁸, corruption³ ¹⁹ ⁵³, criminal syndicates who bail out foot-soldiers¹⁰ and the cost of detaining poachers⁴⁴.

Dawie Groenewald, an ex-policeman turned poaching kingpin, was first charged in 2010 with 1872 criminal counts³, but isn’t expected to be tried until 2021⁵³. This is an all too common story of failed prosecutions and sentences not fully served⁵³. This case exposed links between poaching and unlikely conspirators including a member of Pablo Escobar’s cartel, Irish mobsters, and business dealings with the Trump family³.

Illegal wildlife trafficking is now the fourth largest illegal industry, behind human, weapon, and drug trafficking³³. It is estimated to generate $19 billion annually²⁷, which isn’t inconceivable, considering rhino horn command $65,000 per kilogram²⁷. A male bull with 22lbs of horn³ would yield $650,000. This makes rhino horn more valuable by weight than gold ⁵⁴ and cocaine ⁵⁵. It’s no wonder then that organized crime syndicates and terrorist organizations are involved in poaching. Al Shabaab, a branch of Al Qaeda, generates 40% of its income from ivory²⁷. They are not alone: The Janjaweed militia³⁸ and Boko Haram⁶ are also involved. This international security threat is why the USA has recently prioritized this issue⁶, though it remains to be seen how fruitful their efforts will be, as the criminal organizations involved in poaching are highly organized, ruthless and far more agile than the governments and laws they so successfully evade¹.


Art installation on train in Kenya, by JR

It is clear that the issues of poaching and trafficking of illegal wildlife products are challenges of a global scale. What is also clear, is that addressing isolated symptoms or causal factors with singular focus is insufficient. There is a myriad of actors and stakeholders involved in this challenge, each with unique perspectives. Concerted, multifactorial strategies with an inclusive, holistic perspective are therefore needed.

The variety of challenges and strategies outlined within this essay suggest that there is a common denominator of greed and desperation; the accelerating decimation of wildlife and the natural world is driven by both human nature and human economics. These are the leverage-points that may yield the greatest impact in addressing the issue at hand, however, it remains to be seen if any strategies are capable of meeting the scale and urgency of the challenge, or able to resolve the issue without shifting the burden somewhere else. As long as wildlife is worth more dead than alive²¹, and the ratio of risk to reward ratio remains as it is, this fight will continue to cost lives and dollars.

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