27 June 2019 Rhianna Boyle


Poaching is an issue that impacts animals, people and environments all over the world. 

Přemysl Rabas had a tough decision to make. But he made it. The director of Dvur Kralove Zoo, 45 kilometres northeast of Prague, gave the order for the horns of the zoo’s 21 rhinoceros to be removed.
It might sound extreme, or brutal, but Rabas was doing what he considered best to protect the rhinos under his care.

“A de-horned rhino is definitely a better option than a dead rhino,” he said

He was acting in response to what happened in a French zoo in March this year, when poachers broke in and shot dead a White Rhino, before cutting off and stealing its horn.  Rhino poaching is on the increase. In South Africa alone, the numbers of rhinos poached has gone from 13 in 2007, to 1004 in 2013. That’s an increase of 7700 per cent. These animals were most likely destined for both local and international black markets, where rhino horn is valued both in carved form and as a supposed miracle health tonic. The material has a similar chemical composition to human fingernails, but is now estimated to be worth more per kilogram than gold or cocaine.

The incident in France has precedent: between 2010 and 2013, an Irish criminal gang called the Rathkeale Rovers stole rhino horn artifacts and hunting trophies from museums across Europe, using tear gas to disable security guards. Dvur Kralove Zoo is not the only one going to extreme lengths to protect their animals – the Bandia reserve in Senegal has done the same, and Belgium’s Pairi Daiza Zoo plans to follow suit.
Wildlife poaching may be especially shocking when it occurs in a European zoo, but the issue has always been a global one. While some media coverage focuses negative attention narrowly on poachers, a large proportion of the illegal wildlife trade is driven by international buyers in developed countries, primarily from Europe, North America and China. One wildlife NGO characterises the illegal wildlife trade as a product of both extreme poverty and extreme wealth.

Although most of the global wildlife trade is legal, wildlife is illegally harvested and trafficked for a variety of reasons. Some are mundane, such as timber or seafood products laundered through the legal market. Ivory is valued for elaborate carvings, which are often used as gifts or investments. Some species are sought for traditional medicines, like tiger bone wine, bear bile and pangolin scales.
While it is fairly well known that rhinos, tigers and elephants are highly trafficked, of the species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (CITES), orchids comprise 70 per cent of them, such is the demand for illegally traded specimens.

In Australia, the exotic pet market drives both illegal imports and exports of poached wildlife. In 2014, Sydney customs officers discovered the eggs of a CITES-listed parakeet species hidden in a traveller’s underwear. “Budgie smugglers” star in our national lexicon for good reason. 

Poaching is also a major environmental threat. While only some species are targeted, their loss has potential knock-on effects; for example, elephants’ role as seed dispersers makes them valuable to the whole ecosystem.

Negative environmental impacts come with equally negative social ones. The illegal wildlife trade is facilitated by corruption and by access to guns, but the trade can itself fuel corruption and violence. The International Ranger Foundation says that two to three rangers are killed every day in the line of duty. About 70 per cent of them are believed to have been killed by poachers.

Dr Rosie Cooney leads the Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Cooney believes the current legal response to poaching is not working: “In general, there are massive problems. The effective capacity to enforce laws is one problem – that’s completely missing in many countries.”

Cooney says that in some scenarios, legal prohibitions on harvesting wildlife can actually cause more harm than good. She points to areas in Southeast Asia where local people were subsistence hunting, but also protecting the area. Then a complete ban has come in. “A centralised government tells them they do not have any rights over the land, they’re not allowed to use any of that forest. So you immediately criminalise the subsistence behavior of communities, but you also take away the incentive for them to keep people out of their area.”

Where governments also have weak powers of enforcement, Cooney says, you have perfect conditions for the illegal wildlife trade to flourish. “It’s a situation where nobody has an incentive to conserve wildlife. You effectively open it up to large-scale exploitation by outsiders.”

In contrast, legal protections in some parts of the world are enacted through militarised force. In 2012, a retired Major General was recruited to coordinate rhino protection in Kruger National Park, South Africa, while in South Africa and Kenya, private security companies defend wildlife using military equipment and techniques. One such company, ProTrack, has reportedly used the motto Save the Rhino, Hunt a Poacher.

But the militarised approach has been criticised by some commentators for causing a dangerous arms race between rangers and poachers, and creating a situation ripe for human rights abuses.
More innovative attempts have been made to combat the illegal wildlife trade at various points along the chain of supply and demand.

The group Breaking the Brand funds ad campaigns in Vietnam, dissuading the wealthy elite from buying rhino horn by linking the practice to negative health effects and loss of social status.

There are also discussions about the potential of synthetic rhino horn, both as an overtly marketed substitute and covert addition to supply chains, with the latter part of a deliberate strategy to devalue the genuine product.

In China the government is moving to shut down ivory stores and carving entities in the country by the end of 2017, as part of a commitment made with the US in 2015 to protect elephants from poaching.

And locally, Sydney’s Taronga Zoo has developed an app that lets tourists and locals report possible illegal wildlife trafficking by taking a photo, recording the location and sending the information to global wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC. It’s been so successful the app is now being taken up around the world.

But Cooney says there is no one single way to shut down poaching; it requires action all the way along the trade chain. Her work focuses on the community level, at the sites where the poaching happens.

“We look at why people are poaching, and how you can get the people who are living with wildlife, and bearing the cost of living with wildlife, to be really active, committed partners in conservation.” She points to conservation initiatives in Namibia as examples of programs that successfully combine wildlife protection and social development.

“There are no simple answers to meeting human needs, but humans have to live on this planet, too. So the challenge is to try to meet those human needs while really respecting and safeguarding the ecosystem that sustains human societies,” says Cooney.

And with CITES listing animals like great apes, lemurs, giant pandas, cheetahs, leopards, tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses, many birds of prey and all sea turtles as “threatened with extinction”, everyone needs to face up to that challenge.

>> First published in Ed#535