The Small Risks, Big Rewards, and Bigger Consequences of Poaching

As I mentioned in my first blog post, countries with weak rule of law (more specifically, weak enforcement of wildlife crime-related laws) can be particularly attractive sites for the capture, transit, and sale of illegal wildlife products.  A key problem regarding illegal wildlife products vis-à-vis the acquisition and trade of other illegal commodities is that often the punitive measures against wildlife crime are not strong enough to match the severity of the crime – even as it continues to become extremely financially lucrative.  This becomes especially problematic when wildlife crime is used to fund activities that undermine national and international security.

Whether it is due to the inability of governments to apprehend wildlife criminals or the lack of strong deterrents in their criminal justice systems if they are arrested, wildlife crime is often tolerated more than crimes associated with other illicit goods.  Additionally, corruption continues to undermine the enforcement of wildlife crime-related laws, and the successful prosecution of criminals for many other types of offenses as well.  In many African range countries, poachers have historically been punished with the figurative “slap on the wrist” – nominal fines or short prison sentences – which does little to deter poaching.

In some ways this is understandable in that poaching animals may not immediately appear to be so serious a crime as involvement in the drug or arms trade.  After all, it has only been in recent years that wildlife crime has risen this far up the policy agendas of governments, and this was because more officials had come to recognize the implications of wildlife crime for domestic and international security (see Caitlin’s post on the history of this shift).  If these wider ramifications are not recognized uniformly by judicial institutions on the ground, then a case of poaching may only be seen as the simple killing of an animal itself and be punished less harshly than it would be for a case involving items whose dangers are more easily recognizable.

At the same time, demand for certain wildlife products has pushed the price so high that some estimate the price of rhino horns to be worth more per kilo than gold or cocaine.  When it is easier to poach and traffic animal horns than these other commodities, it is only rational for criminals seeking to make large amounts of money to pursue wildlife crime in lieu of riskier ventures.  This means that threatened animal species will continue to be targeted even more harshly unless more is done to protect them both physically and through legal/judicial deterrents.

While it can be used for pure financial gain, wildlife crime can also be used to direct resources to efforts that could cause further security issues beyond the act of poaching itself.  The low-risk, high-reward nature of wildlife crime has been noticed and taken advantage of by organized militant and terrorist groups, since they require abundant financial resources to support their operations.  In particular, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa have been reported to kill elephants and sell their ivory in order to obtain food and weapons for their members.  This has supplemented their trade in other materials like diamonds, another commodity that has recently fallen in value relative to ivory. The dangerous combination of high returns and low risk suggests that wildlife crime will grow as a source of income for the LRA and other groups, to the detriment of animal and human populations alike.

To tackle the problem both the financial side and the law enforcement side must be addressed.  Although demand reduction in East Asia and elsewhere continues to be a long-term endeavor, building enforcement capacity and implementing legal reforms can be done in a shorter time frame to help de-incentivize poaching.  For example, in 2013 the Kenyan government moved to toughen punishments for poaching and other wildlife crimes by increasing fines and jail time.  Though my classmate Wade is certainly right to raise concerns about a “War on Poaching” that parallels campaigns like the War on Drugs, leaving wildlife crime open as a relatively less risky enterprise means that populations of threatened species will continue to suffer – as will people who live near these animals, seek to protect them, or stand to economically benefit from them.

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