How do poachers become poachers?

Fynn van Westen

The region that pops into everyone’s mind when poaching is mentioned, is Africa. A lot of African countries, such as Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania are ranked high globally for poaching. Africa is considered to be the most affected region on our planet. That is due to its special combination of exotic animals, culture, and poverty, as well as political and socio-economic circumstances.

When people talk about poachers they paint an image of heartless and cruel people who act out of greed and do unspeakable inhumane things. But is this image fair? To begin with, we should differentiate between two kinds of poachers. First, the often imagined groups of armed men hunting down big game for ivory and trophies. Second, the villager who hunts for meat in the bush and nature reserves. Often just one side of the story is reported, says South African filmmaker James Walsh who got frustrated with the situation and started a film project to show the reality outside of the reserves. “Conservation films tend to focus on what happens in the nature reserve, within the boundaries of a fence, and in South Africa that tends to be a very white-man-khaki-dominated narrative.” This way to look at conservation turns a blind eye to the shocking reality that the reserve border communities live in.

In the film “The real reasons why people poach endangered species,” former poachers reveal their reasoning for poaching. It is emotionally moving to hear these individuals explain their situation and reveals a whole new perspective. Many of the rural communities living around the nature reserves have been uprooted and displaced in the last 100 years to make space for the reserves. They have little to no access to employment, education or even basic food and water supply. Many of which are living in poverty, unimaginable to western people, trying to provide for their families or avoid starvation. Often the wildlife on the other side of the fence is seen as the only opportunity to survive. The overall consequences are not an immediate consideration to these people in their need. They simply aren’t aware that they might kill endangered species, like the African wild dog, with their traps. The lack of knowledge is addressed in education programs in community schools. Kids learn about the animals protected in the reserves and spread the knowledge and excitement about their local wildlife in the communities. As James Walsh states, “If we don’t look after these communities, if we don’t empower them, then we’re going to lose this biodiversity.”

A research paper “African elephant poaching rates correlate with local poverty, national corruption and global ivory price“ published in 2019 identified two of the main factors that drive people to poach. These were found to be poverty and national corruption. The high demand of ivory, trophies and so on, mainly from Asia, was also found to be significant and directly correlated. The demand is an opportunity for African poachers to earn a lot of money. One kilogram of Rhino horn is worth up to 22.000$, which is more than an average Kenyan can earn in three years. A Kilo of ivory can earn poachers over 2.000$. The researchers found a high positive occurrence between poached elephants and poverty density and negative correlation to law enforcement adequacy. Also, it was observed that the rate of illegally killed elephants decreased with lowering national corruption rates. This means more elephants were killed in areas with high poverty, where earnings are less than 1.25$ a day. But the numbers decreased if law enforcement was adequate. This might be directly connected to the observation that more animals get killed if the national corruption level of the country is high. The evidence supports that the ivory trade is run by highly organised criminal networks with good knowledge of the markets. It seems poverty makes the population desperate, and in countries with bad or corrupt law enforcement, criminals build an organised trafficking pipeline to the global markets.

It becomes more and more evident that a fight for wildlife conservation should also be a fight against poverty and vice versa. Some national parks realised this and attempted to connect conservation and poverty alleviation of the local communities. An example is the experimental program of the “digital fortress“ in which rangers closely monitor human activity in the park with high-tech equipment to prevent poaching before it happens. Their holistic approach also includes local community work to provide an alternative to the estimated 1000 poaching syndicates on the park’s borders. With the strong lure of poaching, “we needed to change people’s mindset toward the park,” the head ranger stated. One example for  this support is the funding of schools in the local communities. The idea is that a healthy and well stocked park is the basis of a high-end travel and tourism business, providing an economic future to thousands of locals. That is why profits from tourism are reinvested in the social development projects outside of the park to build schools and provide alternative opportunities.

Sources: African elephant poaching rates correlate with local poverty, national corruption and global ivory price research paper, BBC, Documentation: Wildererjagd am Mount Kenya (hunting poachers at mount Kenya), Popular Mechanics,