Collateral Damage: The Effects of Poaching on Local Communities
Poaching has become a pandemic in Africa. Across the continent, many animals are killed or removed from their home environment mainly due to human greed. Endangered animals’ numbers are dwindling, and conservation groups around the world are focusing on how best to save these beautiful creatures from undeniable decline. However, with all this focus on the animals, many forget the other victims involved in poaching hot zones: the communities.
Poaching stems from demand. Many countries, usually of Asian origin, have high demand for wildlife products such as rhino horn and ivory. This demand forms a huge economy for the items on the black market, making the products worth thousands of dollars. Rhino horn, in particular, which currently costs around $60,000 per kilogram, is worth more than gold. This pricy item is most often illegally shipped to Asian countries and used for items such as medicinal tonics and powders. Many buyers believe rhino horn can cure anything from cancer to hangovers, even though the horn is made solely of keratin, a substance found in human fingernails. The demand for these unconventional and unproven treatments is what has sparked the steady increase of poaching incidents, and the large cash rewards continue to entice many people to become involved in the illegal business.
Demand causes the poaching business to involve not just one poacher, but a whole slew of people who willingly participate in the illegal trade. Precious wildlife products get passed from one person to another until they reach their final destination in this chain of illicit trade. For example, a poached rhino horn travels from the hands of the poacher to a carrier who takes the horn out of the reserve or country. The horn switches hands again to a courier who takes the horn to a middleman. This middleman distributes the horn to a storage unit. From storage it travels through a triad network and then finally make it to the black market for sale. Each of these individuals gathers a relatively large paycheck from their involvement, and thus spikes interest in continued efforts to poach. For communities plagued by poverty, this is a huge draw. As more and more people are enticed into the practice, more poaching incidents occur. Solely between 2007 and 2013, poaching incidents increased by about 7,700%. These numbers are truly staggering.
Every payment made to the illegal trade helps initiate false economies throughout small communities on borders of wildlife reserves. Poachers bring in large sums of money to these small towns and oftentimes find ways to display their newfound wealth with luxuries such as cars or nice clothing. These displays entice some to join the poaching trend because they are looking for wealth and higher social status. Others are drawn because the quick money can help feed their families. As poaching instances increase many livelihoods typical to these communities suffer greatly, and quality of life is decreased. Poaching can ravage the resources in small towns, like local wild animals, which are used for food and local plant species, which are used for medicines and fuel. This trend diminishes the overall heritage of these communities because the lure of wealth is just too strong. What these people don’t realize is that this wealth is unsustainable. When the wildlife disappears due to the poaching pandemic the money will disappear as well. What will these poachers turn to once they run out of money?
Along with false economies, poaching helps contribute to social decay in many communities. Where there is buying power, there is social decay. An excess of money can lead people to self-destructive behavior, which includes drug use and alcoholism. Poaching circles have even been known to operate like organized crime syndicates. In a lecture, Craig Spencer explained that poaching operators try to keep their poachers loyal to the business, sometimes getting the poor poachers hooked on drugs or other expensive behaviors so they constantly need money. Especially with drug use, the money that is paid to the poachers is often used to pay back the middleman who buys the rhino horn for drug debts, creating a vicious cycle. Johan Jooste, Major General of Kruger National Park even admitted a “poacher will always replace a poacher unless you take out organized crime.” The security of the populations affected by poaching syndicates is now at an all time low.
With all the risks to both the environment and the communities throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, what steps should we take to eliminate insecurity for both? The first thing we need to remember is that poachers are not warriors. They are simply trying to provide for themselves as well as further their opportunities. Poverty disrupts acts of conservation because oftentimes those contributing to environmental degradation have shortsighted goals. Their actions help themselves and their families make it day to day, whereas large-scale conservation acts focus on preservation for decades to come. The International Conservation Caucus Foundation (ICCF) states,
“The extreme poverty of many African communities induces their complicity in African-based, Asian-run poaching networks.”
Addressing poverty will help alleviate the poaching crisis. However, poaching is not just driven by poverty, but by the wealth of other communities. The demand from Asian countries and other affluent buyers helps initiate the process. The decision to purchase illegal wildlife products as well as the decision to poach are extremely complex issues, requiring in depth research to make a difference.
While visiting a local high school near the border of Kruger National Park, we asked the students how they thought we could alleviate poaching, and many students had suggestions. The crux of their proposal was finding a way to end the corruption throughout the country that allows for this illicit trade to take place. They pointed out many times poachers would be caught by authorities, but then resurface in the parks and game reserves several weeks later without punishment. This glimpse at corruption only proves this business is run by an interesting juxtaposition of greed and need. There are those who value rapacity and create avenues in which poaching can thrive; then there are those who utilize these avenues to poach out of true need.
Poaching is a serious crisis. It is a trade that risks not only the lives of animals, but the lives of humans. In order to effectively combat it, we must come together to protect wildlife as well as ourselves. We are all at risk.