Poaching: Understanding the Threat

hippos and birds on a river in Africa

Poaching, or illegal harvest of wild animals and birds, is one of the major threats to wildlife in many areas of the world. It harms the planet in more ways than one. Illegal harvest is usually unsustainable, because it is by definition unregulated (besides, if it was sustainable, there wouldn’t be many reasons to ban it in the first place). In addition, many people do not discriminate between legal and illegal hunting, and many sustainable forms of hunting have been or are threatened simply because well-intended but ill-informed people believe they are fighting poaching this way. Then, when legal hunting is banned, poachers come in and finish what’s left. 

It’s not a case of fifty shades of grey: illegal hunting is poaching, and poaching is wrong. And yet, poaching comes in many forms and shapes, and the motivation of people who engage in illegal hunting can vary dramatically. To combat poaching efficiently, it is important to recognize the differences. 

Hunting violations

Sometimes it starts small. It’s just a few minutes past the legal shooting light, you see the buck well enough, you’ve got the license and tag, how can it hurt anyone? Or, after you’ve driven for a few hundred miles, you come to pick up your hunting license, but find the relevant office closed. You’ve hunted there for a few seasons, and never seen a game warden. Who would suffer if you go out without a license? You are allowed to kill a deer, does it really matter if you kill it with a rifle, even though it’s archery season. What difference does it make? 

It makes every difference, of course. In the so-called “civilized” countries hunting can only exist if it is regulated. Regulations are made assuming everyone follows them, otherwise they’re useless. Moreover, the lion’s share of conservation work is financed by money hunters pay for the privilege. Not buying a license means less money for conservation. It may seem a trifle, but tinker with your moral compass, and you step on a slippery slope that will take to greater and greater crimes until you end up in jail or worse.

In the so-called “third-world” countries, however, things may be different. 

Capybara, the biggest rodent in the world
Animals like tapir are an important food source for many communities in Central and South America

Subsistence poaching

Subsistence poaching is the same as subsistence hunting, only done against the law. Subsistence hunting provides essential nutrition to people living in many underdeveloped rural areas in Central and South America, Asia, and Africa. However, population growth, habitat destruction, and availability of more efficient firearms, motorboats, vehicles and electric torches takes heavier and heavier toll on wildlife populations. Or, a village may live as it lived hundreds of years before, enjoying a decent amount of game, but elsewhere in the country some iconic species may be classified as “threatened” or “endangered”. 

Then, officials from a big city, who probably don’t even represent the villagers, come and tell them they can’t hunt any more. In the global perspective it could be a necessary move, but from the perspective of the villagers that is unfair and unjust. Especially if they learn that the law was adopted at the pressure of some NGO with a cool abbreviation from the US or Europe

What usually happens in such situations is that everything goes on just as before. The local residents, impoverished as they are, can’t just give away a source of protein. The police and game wardens, who in these places are usually few and far between to start with, will look the other way rather than ruin their good relations with friends and family. A few years later everyone forgets that the hunting ban was ever there, and will be genuinely surprised when you tell them they can’t hunt a particular animal in a particular place. Serious attempts to enforce the game laws may result in something not unlike guerilla warfare. 

Protest poaching

Most scientific studies of poaching in the so-called “third world” focus only on the economical side. But there are other things that drive people to harvest game illegally. The hunting instinct is one of the basic instincts of Homo sapiens, any textbook will tell you that. Most people in the modern world must suppress the instinct, partially or fully. For some it comes easy; others, if any opportunity to hunt is taken away from them, suffer terribly. And find ways to hunt, even if it is illegal.  

This may lead to a situation known as protest poaching. This problem arises especially when a hunting concession or preserve is organized on a territory without taking into consideration the wishes and needs of people living on the territory. We have hunted here for years, like our fathers and grandfathers before us, say the local hunters to each other, and now these rich guys come and tell us it’s not our game anymore? Then they go and take part in illegal harvest, even though they might not have an economic incentive to do so. 

The worst part of protest poaching is that people who engage in it often get carried away and act like ferrets in a chicken coop, killing more animals than they need, or they would have killed under other circumstances. “If I can’t have it, you won’t have it either”.  

Problem animal poaching

Animals aren’t always good neighbors. Herbivores such as wild pigs, deer and antelopes can do serious damage to the crops. So can elephants – with the additional benefit of being dangerous to people who try to defend their property. Lions, leopards, wolves, and bears can kill livestock and be dangerous to humans, too. Few dwellers of suburban houses and downtown lofts can realize how intense human-wildlife conflict can be. And can you really judge people who aren’t offered a legal and efficient way of handling the conflict, when they are forced to take the matter into their own hands?

Here, paradoxically, strict enforcement of game laws may be worse than no game laws. In the lawless situation, the locals could just get a gun and kill the leopard that kills their goats. One leopard dies, which is bad enough, but it could be worse. If there are game wardens watching, and the leopard continues killing the goats, the owners are forced to use subtler and deadlier weapons. Like snaring. About the only way to get caught if you set snares is when you come to collect the animals that are caught. So, poachers whose only interest is to get rid of the pest don’t bother to check the snares. Many other animals get caught and die a painful death. Or, one can simply poison a waterhole – and who cares if all animals that drink out of it die, too?

This sort of poaching doesn’t usually happen on hunting concessions because of the benefits the locals receive from the wildlife, but often occurs in national parks and other protected areas where locals do not receive any bonuses from living with wildlife. With no gains from wildlife, why put up with creatures who either are in competition with their livestock or threaten their crops or lives?

A herd of elephants
Cute only from a distance: a herd of elephants can wreck havoc on a community’s fields, and even kill people who try to protect their crops

Status poaching

In many cultures with despotic regimes your status depends on how many laws and regulations apply to you – or, better said, what rules you can break without consequences. The lower castes have to follow every rule, and for the Great Ruler there aren’t any rules, and everyone else is in between. This attitude is often characteristic of new democracies, too, where old perceptions may persist for a long time. In these societies a person of high position simply can’t hunt like an average Joe. They have to show their status by killing animals by illegal means, or in protected areas, or of protected species. 

When you hear of a group of local legislative organ crashing in a helicopter from which they tried to shoot some argali, this is an example of status poaching. This is perhaps the most disgusting form of poaching, as it corrupts all layers of the society, showing that the laws don’t mean a thing. And it casts a bad light on all hunters, too. It’s hard to sell the idea that trophy hunting can save endangered species, if the opponent can sarcastically reply “by gunning them down from a helicopter?”

Organized poaching

Organized poaching groups are a real plague in Africa. These are quite often organized cartels that kill elephants for their ivory and rhinos for their horns to sell on the black market. Other gangs harvest incredible amounts of “bush meat” – antelopes, bush pigs, and in fact just about anything that can be eaten – and sell it on the markets of big cities. 

This isn’t such a new thing. In the XVII and XVIII centuries the English Parliament passed a number of laws prohibiting the sale of game. They believed it would help combat poaching. In reality, it led to formation of organized poaching groups, not unlike drug cartels, with some people killing pheasants and hares, others transporting them to London and other big cities, and peddlers distributing them to clients. No amount of persecution could put an end to that. Finally, in the 1830s, selling game birds and animals was legalized again. 

The worst part of organized poaching is the same problem as with all mafia: it’s easy to get in, but hard to get out alive. A subsistence poacher or protest poacher can just quit, but other members of a poaching gang will not like the idea of one quitting, with predictable consequences. In any case, a quitter will be replaced, and the show will go on. In fact, you can take out all members of an organized crime group but one, and this one can reconstruct the operation with new people, as long as there’s supply and demand coupled with the temptation of quick riches.

Local community members on a hunt
Conservation projects will only be efficient as long as they involve and empower local communities

Understanding is half solution

Most hunters hate poachers with a passion. Whenever news of a poaching incident came out, hunting pages in the Internet burst with calls to “crack down” on poachers, all the way up to shooting them dead on sight. History shows, however, that tough measures alone never work. In the Middle Ages, thieves and robbers were tortured, mutilated, and executed, but theft and robbery didn’t go anywhere. In the USSR in the 1940s you could go to GULAG if you picked a few sheaths of wheat left over from harvest. People still picked the sheaths because they were starving. Law enforcement is only effective when there’s a legal alternative to the illegal activity.

In Kenia, for example, “bush meat” – harvested by illegal poaching gangs, of course – costs more than regular farmed beef or mutton. Urban Kenyans pay the price, not only because they love the taste, but because it connects them with their homeland in the country, which they left to pursue better luck in the city. If you ignore the legality and environmental damage, this desire is an understandable need, and the only way to reduce poaching is a legal way to satisfy it. The game farm and meat hunt industry, similar to South African and Namibian models, would go a long way towards reducing organized poaching. 

The most successful conservation projects, such as the CAMPFIRE program in Zimbabwe or the Markhor conservation projects in Pakistan and Tajikistan, depend on involving the local communities. This way they can make sure that the needs of the local communities are satisfied much better by the conservation project than by other means. There’s no need to poach for subsistence because you get more food through the hunting concession. There’s no need to protest, because you are empowered, and the rules are made by you, not by someone a million miles away. Projects such as Hunting and Conservation Alliance of Tajikistan find a way for local hunters to satisfy their hunting instinct without endangering threatened species. Everybody wins. 

As long as there are rules, there will always be people who break them. Poaching is a complicated problem that isn’t likely to go away any time soon, if at all. But understanding the problem will help find a solution that will reduce it to the levels where it isn’t harmful for the environment. Hunters and the hunting industry must be in the front lines – because our lifestyle and sustainable conservation depend on it. 



  1. Yes poaching is bad, thank you for getting this article out there. I would like to bring to your attention however that one of the first things a hunter learns is that you MUST know what you are shooting at (know your target). To that end I can not keep quiet when in your article you show a picture of an animal in the water and the caption refers to it as a “capybara”. I’m sorry but you lose a lot of credibility when hunting, even with an SLR (camera) and you can’t identify your target. The animal in the picture is a tapir..clearly a tapir. It is not a capybara.

    1. Thank you for drawing our attention to this unfortunate and unintended mistake. We stand corrected!

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