By Lisa Jorgenson, Lead Wildlife Researcher KwF Interview with an Ex-Poacher, Tanzania Interview Conducted and translated by Ogossy Gasaya Interview with an Ex-Poacher, Rwanda Interview Conducted and translated by Gerard
Archaeological and historical records show rhino meat had been hunted for food across many parts of the world. It was a dietary staple in hunter-gatherer societies beginning in western Germany approximately 80,000 years ago and continued to be for Dutch and British settlers in South Africa until the early 19th century. Hunters also discovered uses for other parts of the body, like the horn, for medicinal and ornamental purposes (dagger handles, bowls, jewelry). Collecting such a large animal and returning it to camp also brought prestige and status to the hunter (Sas-Rolfes, 2012).
Rhino horns are made of tightly packed keratin fibers, which also make up the hair, hooves, and nails of all mammals. The chemical structure of keratin reacts with alkaloids. This made the horn valuable to the elite and nobility of Europe and Asian dynasties because keratin in rhino horn bowls could detect poison; this instigated the notion that rhino horns must have healing powers. Records of rhinoceros horns, urine, blood, and skin have been in use in Chinese medicine dating back to 200 B.C.E. (TRAFFIC, 2008). It has yet to be scientifically proven that rhino horn provides any medicinal properties, yet Eastern medicine continue to use horns as treatments for various illnesses such as convulsions, cancers, strokes, nosebleeds, and fevers. This, however, is of no interest to those who practice Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which is largely based on tradition and religious beliefs over science and commercial interest (Sas-Rolfes, 2012).
South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe hold the world’s population of rhinoceros with 80% residing in South Africa. Deaths have escalated in the past 5 concurrent years from 6 per month in 2008 to approximately 83 per month in 2013 (Coghlan, 2014), most of which occurs in Kruger National Park. If this trend continues deaths will soon surpass births and will reach the tipping point in the African rhino population. Poaching is the primary cause of death within the rhino population.
Categories of Poachers Poachers are excellent bushmen who understand the terrain, environment, and animals. Kills are made after dark, most of which occur under a full moon. There are 3 categories of poachers, some of which contain professional hunters, wildlife veterinarians, and military. 1. Commercial poachers target commercially valuable species such as rhinos, primates, and elephants. They are a highly organized group and have access to GPS tracking devices, tranquilizers, precision firearms, and mobile phones. Many also pose as businessmen or tourists to gain entry into national parks and survey the land and security strength then communicate this information back to the group for entry after dark. Commercial poaching has a detrimental effect on wildlife populations, in that their numbers are already low and bounty fetches the most profit (Duffy & St. John, 2013). 2. Subsistence poachers specialize in species such as antelope and other small game intended for a food source. Techniques are of low quality (snares and traps) and have minimal impact on populations. 3. Hybrid poachers combine the former 2 categories. This group focuses on demand for ‘empty forests’ from commercial logging companies. Not only does it have a high impact on local wildlife, this type of poaching also depletes protein sources for local communities (Duffy & St. John, 2013).
In Central Africa, approximately 80% of rangers are, on some level, involved in trafficking (Mathot, 2014). Because communities are small, some rangers and poachers know each other directly and others, occasionally, are bribed. Luc Mathot of Conservation Justice has organized the arrest of 4 rangers in the Congo in 2012 and 3 from Gabon in 2013. Ranger involvement is less common in South Africa. Strict laws are enforced to curtail such actions and rangers found conspiring with poachers are relieved from duty (Sandram, 2014). Illicit wildlife trade is the fourth largest illegal activity worldwide and is worth $23 billion US dollars per year (Pandolfi, 2014). In order to understand what is happening in illegal trade, the prices that wildlife products yield must be monitored. The scarcity of a product reflects higher prices whereas low prices reflect abundance. High profit and turn over are the driving factor and poachers have a very small window to work in. If the probability of being caught and punished (i.e. imprisonment or death) is high, this will alter the expected price tag. Many reserve barriers are not deterrents for poachers, as they are minimal (i.e. barbed wire and sparse fencing). Moreover, legislation and borders between subsistence hunting and poaching are blurred (Burton, 2014). The majority of rhino populated countries have low penalty policies. However, Botswana has the lowest poaching rate due to its ‘zero tolerance-shoot to kill’ policy (Carrington, 2014). The Defense Force treats apprehended poachers as aggressive military threats if they do not surrender their weapons immediately. Other factors that keep poaching minimal are the country’s remoteness and low populace. Conservationists were looking to relocate South African rhinos via helicopter to Botswana for these reasons (Carrington, 2014). However, due to the high cost and inhumane transportation complications, this option has been rejected.
Poverty & Criminal networks Poverty and poaching go hand-in-hand. Impoverished communities are more likely to engage in illegal activities so long as there is a demand for goods. Poaching organizations turn to disadvantaged communities to recruit new personnel. The sole source of income for these remote areas is farming, however, because of its remoteness and lack of transportation, selling produce and livestock is limited. If communities had ways of traveling further into more populated areas, they would have a better chance at sales. However, due to word of mouth, some consumers will travel to the farms to purchase goods, which allows farmers to raise their prices. These methods are still no match for payouts from rhino horns and ivory (Anonymous, 2014). Because poachers are well-financed and wildlife products can easily be turned into cash, the decision to poach becomes alluring to those in need. Factors such as social, political, and environmental status are also considered.
Those who begin as poachers have the opportunity to get promoted to better paying, less conspicuous positions (Duffy & St. John, 2013). A simple poacher can move up to a chief position and organize trafficking for poachers. One could also sell his own ivory and become a trafficker (Mathot, 2014). The ‘middle-man’ position takes a product to the richer barons within cities. These people have an actual chance at moving up after accumulating enough money that allows them to work in less conspicuous ranks (Sandram, 2014). According to TRAFFIC-ASIA, there is a direct link between the rise in regional incomes and illegal wildlife trading (Duffy & St. John, 2013). Poachers who enter protected areas are more prone to be risk-takers. Some are bribed with cigarettes, beer, money, or other items not so commonly found in local communities (Sandram, 2014).
Poverty is not the only driving force in poaching. Illegal trade has become war-like with a complex network of violent militias, terrorists, government corruption, and organized crime, fueled by demand predominantly from Asia and the rising economic status in Vietnam. In 2012, a 10 kg rhino horn would bring in $20,000 per kg on the African-based Asian-run market (Montesh, 2012). Today, prosperous consumers in China and Vietnam have driven the price up to $65,000 per kg and can fetch as much as $100,000 on the black market, making horns more valuable than platinum, gold, or cocaine (Yale Environment360, 2014). Because of its’ increasing prosperity, Vietnam holds the chief market on rhino horns, yet it has little to do with medicinal ailments. They are sold as recreational drugs for partygoers, aphrodisiacs, for detoxification from excessive food and/or alcohol consumption for the more affluent, décor, gifts such as horn bracelets, and necklaces, as well as a deceptive ‘miracle drug’ to cheat cancer patients out of cash. In 2008, the Vietnamese Embassy was found to be a participant in illegal rhino horn trade (Thomas, 2012).