If you’ve ever been interested in endangered animals you’ve probably heard that one of the reasons the species is threatened is because of poaching. By definition, poaching is a pretty straightforward practice, but beyond the surface level, there is a lot to unpack.
Poaching is a complex topic with a lot of confusing reasoning and effects behind it. We’ll be breaking down exactly what poaching is, how it has changed over time, why people poach animals, and how groups are combating poaching so it’s easily understandable.
Let’s get started.
Poaching includes illegal hunting, fishing, and taking of species, and in the modern-day, this is generally for financial gain. You might expect black markets and shady dealers to drive most of the poaching, however, this isn’t really the case.
Any form of illegal harvest falls under poaching. From news-garnering stories of poached elephants to your cousin Billy bagging a deer that he didn’t have a tag for. To be clear, hunting or fishing while trespassing and going over legal bag limits are also poaching.
Tropical fish are a prime example since they are frequently caught, shipped, and sold into the aquarium trade in large numbers. This can decimate the reefs they call home, and until recently there was very little protection or regulation in most aquarium markets worldwide.
Sometimes individual countries can drive poaching of specific species almost on their own. China didn’t ban the import of ivory until 2017 and had a high demand up until that point.
Even the capture of animals to be sold into zoos has driven poaching in the past. While better, more sustainable options such as captive breeding, bans on importing certain goods, and establishment of guarded sanctuaries have been put in place, poaching remains a problem for many endangered species.
In the past, poaching was mostly a matter of life and death. In Medieval Europe for example, hunting was a sport reserved for nobility and they exerted their exclusive right to hunt game like deer, wild boar, foxes, and other game.
For peasants who typically lived on the edge of starvation, poaching the ruling class’s game was the only way to improve their diet. As time passed, these exclusive rights were given to landowners who employed gamekeepers to protect the animals on their land from poachers.
At this time, poachers were mostly made up of poor people who just needed more food, and animals were taken almost exclusively for this reason. Groups of poachers were formed and fought against gamekeepers for access to food.
From the mid 20th century until the modern-day, the reasons behind poaching have changed. Typically, poachers are either hunting game for sport or for financial gain.
Trophies are the main reason for sport hunting of endangered animals. There are legal options for hunting endangered animals, but typically old or weak animals are chosen to improve population health. Since these aren’t ideal trophies, many hunters decide to operate outside of these legal options.
Poaching can also be incredibly profitable. Animal products such as skins, fur, bones, tusks, teeth, and organs can all fetch large sums of money. This is because in many countries these items are culturally considered status symbols, luxury items, or of medicinal or ceremonial importance.
Poaching in many cases reduces the population of a species in an area to either zero or an unsustainable number. Where no protections are in place, it becomes easy and the animals or plants are removed in the name of profit.
While not poaching, there are plenty of examples of wildlife populations devastated by trade. The fur seal trade nearly caused the extinction of the species, and only in the last couple of decades has the species rebounded.
All ecosystems are interdependent, so when one species cannot fill its role, other species also suffer. Continuing the seal example, with rebounding populations of seals in New England, shark populations are back on the rise.
Beyond the emotional response we have for a beautiful species like tigers, elephants, or rhinos being hunted to extinction, the ecological damage wrought by poaching can sometimes become irreversible.
The total value of the illegal wildlife trade is somewhere between $7 billion and $23 billion worldwide each year. Not all wildlife trade is illegal however, with animals from thousands of species legally caught and sold as food, pets, ornaments, or medicine.
Common Animals Threatened By Poaching
Here we’ll give a quick overview of different animals that are particularly threatened by poaching and why they are sought after.
The ivory trade drives the poaching of all types of elephants and rhinos more than any other factor. These animals with horns and tusks are highly prized as luxury items and status symbols in some cultures, while their other body parts can be used in traditional medicinal techniques.
Rhino poaching itself grew 7700% between 2007 and 2013 and is the biggest reason why rhino populations are nearing extinction. One famous example is Sudan, the last male northern white rhino left alive and his two female partners. They are all accompanied 24/7 by armed guards to protect them from poachers.
Thanks to traditional Chinese medicine and their beautiful furs, tigers are regularly the target of poaching. While once home to one of the largest tiger populations, China now has very few wild tigers but keeps thousands in captivity to farm them for ingredients.
Tropical fish are caught quite frequently on reefs and sold as pets in the aquarium trade. Clownfish, blue dory’s, and butterflyfish are all popular choices.
Outside of the aquarium trade, around 100 million sharks each year are caught just for their fins. Driven by demand for shark fin soup, most of the shark species are caught in nets, their fins are sliced off, and then they are discarded back into the water to die.
In many cases, reptiles are poached because of their tough skin that can be made into leather. Alligators, crocodiles, and snakes are all harvested to make boots, handbags, and other garments.
Again, reptiles such as lizards, geckos, and snake species are caught and sold in the pet trade. This includes species like reticulated pythons, boa constrictors, and thorny dragons.
Parrots are a primary target for birds thanks to their popularity in the pet trade. This extends to parakeets and other birds that have beautiful plumage.
Outside of the pet trade, the helmeted hornbill was hunted near extinction because of its solid red bill that was dubbed “red ivory”. Beak ivory such as this is known as a casque and was a profitable option for poachers.
Bear poaching in North America is rare, however, it is fairly common around the world. Their organs are used in traditional Chinese medicine, but they are also hunted for their paws, claws, meat, furs, and trophies.
Some countries have higher rates of illegal wildlife trafficking than others. South Africa has vast numbers of desirable species from lions and cheetahs to elephants and rhinos. They, along with Kenya, Uganda, and Mozambique are hot spots for the ivory and wildlife trade.
China is the biggest player when it comes to the consumption of illegally poached animals. Traditional Chinese medicine and homeopathic remedies make use of animal products such as tiger fangs, rhino horns, and pangolin scales. Local wildlife is under immense pressure despite animal farms and imports.
India is home to tigers, Asian elephants, and leopards are in demand in their own and other countries. Facing pressure from other Eastern markets like China has driven poaching in India.
Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand are all major hubs for illegal wildlife trading. A huge variety of species and products are trafficked or farmed in these countries and then exported to world markets.
In many countries, the penalty for poaching is marginal. In countries that are part of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), 40 members had a maximum penalty of a cash fine, 56 countries had a maximum penalty of fewer than four years, only 34 had a maximum penalty of more than four years in jail, while 51 countries did not report penalties.
Penalties like this are light when weighed against the potentially life-changing money available from poaching.
Accurate arrest records are difficult to find and corruption from bribes and a lack of resources invested influence the actual reported numbers. In 2017, South Africa made 518 poaching-related arrests and Kenya made 1,549 arrests in 2013.
If you’re someone who loves animals and sees them as beautiful and awe-inspiring creatures it can be hard to wrap your mind around why anyone would hunt these animals to the brink of extinction or even in general. Necessity, cultural differences, and financial gain are all driving factors for poaching.
In many isolated rural areas, people have to rely on their surroundings to survive. Areas like this don’t have readily available access to trade and frequently depend on small to medium-sized game animals, also called bushmeat, to survive.
In Africa’s Congo Basin, billions of kilograms of bushmeat are consumed each year. These people largely depend on this kind of poaching for food and for income. In other regions like Cambodia, Peru, and Brazil, isolated communities gather wood and products from the forest to trade for necessary goods.
Most poachers in modern times are in it to make money. Driven by other reasons in this section, poaching animals is extremely profitable.
For example, tiger skins can sell for upwards of $10,000. For a person living in poverty, even making a fraction of that can be life-changing money.
That doesn’t even include the rest of the tiger, which is also desirable in medicine. A single successful hunt could be more money than that person would normally see in their entire lifetime.
This isn’t to say poaching groups and larger entities poach animals in large quantities in the name of profit. It simply should be put into perspective though why poaching can seem so attractive to some people.
Even today, some governing bodies profit from illegal wildlife trafficking. They along with cartels make up the bulk of wildlife poachers and profits.
Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, is still practiced today in over 180 countries and is offered alongside science-based medicine in most hospitals in China. With a rough yearly industry value of $60 billion and its demand for wildlife parts as components, it drives a ton of poaching worldwide.
Tiger bones, rhino horn, and bear bile are all common ingredients for medicines. In many cases, this practice is directly responsible for driving species towards extinction.
Ivory and tiger skins are considered a status symbol and a luxury resource in many Eastern cultures, driving both their high value and demand. Cultural acceptance of medicinal uses for animal parts is another reason for high demand.
Rebellion against what are seen as unjust restrictions can also be a reason for hunters to poach animals. Red snapper populations are a huge debate in the Gulf of Mexico where regulations on recreational fishermen have been stringent for years.
It isn’t uncommon for anglers to catch multiple fish and only keep the biggest, throwing the dead ones overboard. It also isn’t unsurprising when fishermen take more than their daily bag limit home.
Cultures, where hunting certain animals are commonplace, don’t conform readily to new regulations put in place.
In many cases such as with tribal groups, this kind of hunting is given to groups as land rights, where they can hunt as they please. Rarely do they ever take more than they need, and they are not a cause for depleted wildlife populations. These regulated areas though are prime targets for poachers.
In some cases, animals are hunted for or used in traditional ceremonies. In places where these animals are no longer available legally, they’re often poached to be able to continue the practice.
Some religious practices call for hunting rare animals. In these cases, the individuals feel obligated based on their beliefs to hunt animals and engage in poaching.
South African tribes would traditionally use a cape buffalo hide to wrap their chief in when he died. With protections on the animal, this is technically not allowed, however that doesn’t mean it would no longer happen.
Poaching of endangered wildlife is likely a problem that cannot be extinguished. Banning the trade of certain goods does reduce demand and poaching of species, but on its own is not enough. There are, however, ways people are fighting back.
Banning the Trade of Specific Goods
Regulations on the wildlife trade have made it more difficult for poachers to actually make a profit in more developed nations. Paperwork regarding the origin of specimens isn’t easy to fake and is needed for a lot of rare species.
Bans on ivory have contributed to the reduced poaching numbers in recent years for elephants and rhinos. Whaling and shark finning bans have also helped cut down on poaching for these species in countries that are compliant.
National Parks and Wildlife Refuges are essentially no hunting zones where anyone caught harvesting animals or plants is subject to penalties. Whether on land or in the sea, these areas receive protection from a governing body that takes responsibility for keeping patrolling the area.
Kruger National Park in South Africa employs mercenaries to hunt poachers within its borders. While the ethical dilemma surrounding who owns the land, who protects it, who is killed, and the overall morality and fairness of the situation is certainly up for debate, it has reduced the number of animals being poached.
One way to protect animals is to make whatever body part poachers are after worthless. In the case of rhinos and elephants, a non-toxic pink dye put into and on their horns and tusks ruins the ivory and should put off poachers.
While not harmful for the animal, the dye is meant to make the ivory unsellable. Unfortunately, the hot pink photos aren’t representative of the actual process. Instead, dye is used in combination with poison to make the ivory in the horn unworkable for ornamental or medicinal use.
It’s yet to be established if the process will be successful in deterring poachers from taking the animals.