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You are here: Bush-Talk Forum Conservation Wildlife Protection AFRICA'S POACHING PANDEMIC

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Link to this post 25 May 07

AFRICA’S COMMERCIAL POACHING PANDEMIC – By Ron Thompson - 2006 (edited for clarity and context)

Africa’s commercial poaching pandemic started in he 1960’s. In various countries it gathered momentum in the 1970s and it took full flight, throughout the countries of central and East Africa, in the 1980s. Its progress matched the march of decolonization from the north, southwards.

The black rhino was poachers’ first target. In response CITES declared the black rhino to be an endangered species in1975 and all international trade in rhino horn was banned. This did not stop the poaching and most black rhino populations had been rendered locally extinct by the end of the 1980s.

The African elephant was being poached, too, but there were more elephants than rhinos so the poaching impact did not appear to be as serious – but many elephant populations had been seriously depleted, in East Africa, by the end of the 1980s.

During this same period commercial poaching had not seriously affected the elephant populations of southern Africa – South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Indeed, at that time, the elephant populations of all four of these Countries were excessive.

In 1987 the British –based animal rights group – the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) – was persuaded to investigate the African elephant poaching situation. At that time Alan Thornton and Dave Curry, the two principals of the EIA, admitted they knew nothing about elephants; they knew nothing about Africa; and they knew nothing about poaching of elephants. Even so, inside two years, this (then) small NGO had traced the illegal ivory trade routes from East Africa through the Gulf States to the Far East. Nobody can criticize the energy and the resourcefulness that was put into their campaign. But there the accolades must stop.

The EIA through Thornton and Curry very cleverly orchestrated the whole CITES elephant ivory debate in 1989 – convincing the majority of the official delegates to their way of thinking. They claimed that Africa’s Elephant population had stood at 1.3 million in 1980 but had been reduced to 600,000 by 1989 – due entirely to poaching.

Christopher Huxley, an eminent biologist and member of the CITES Secretariat in 1989, questioned the inclusion in their figures of 300,000 elephants in the Congo – which the EIA claimed had been eliminated by poachers. Huxley stated these elephants had never existed. His assertion was totally ignored. Other scientists questioned other aspects of the EIA report. They, too, were ignored.

Nevertheless, there was justification in the claims that commercial poachers had made huge inroads into the East African elephant populations during the 1970s and 1980s. There was also no doubt that something HAD to be done about it. The EIA solution was a universal ban on the trade in ivory.

Many responsible people questioned the wisdom of applying an holistic international ivory trade ban, pointing out that the then excessive southern African elephant populations were completely unaffected by commercial poaching.

What SHOULD have happened is that the elephant populations that were being severely poached in East Africa be placed on the CITES Appendix I (endangered species) list. This would have allowed the international ivory trade ban to be legally imposed on those countries. ALL the elephant populations elsewhere in Africa (especially southern Africa), which were not being poached, SHOULD then have been left on the CITES Appendix II list. This would have allowed the trade in ivory from these southern populations to continue- under strict CITES quotas. This is what is meant by split listing!

The split listing suggestion was ignored. Instead the parties voted in favour of a universal international ivory trade ban – which was in violation of the CITES articles.

The EIA convinced the majority of CITES delegates that the commercial poaching of rhinos and elephants in Africa was SOLELY the result of:
• The ‘greed’ of the poachers:
• The ‘greed and corruption’ of the African bureaucrats and politicians who were the first and most important link in the illegal trade; and
• The existence of an international black market that ultimately purchased the rhino horn and the ivory.

If these three factors had been ALL that was involved then blocking the black market’s easy access to rhino horn and to ivory, by the way of imposing international trade bans on these products, might have worked. But the problem was, and remains, much more complicated.

The animal rightist NGOs at CITES (pers.comm. It has been claimed before on bushdrumms that CITES is totally pro-hunting as an organization. I’ve since found out that there are probably more anti-hunting ngo’s than not) that year claimed the poachers were making a fortune out of their poaching activities. They quoted financial returns to the poachers in the fields that were based on the prices that elephant ivory was fetching at the end-of- the-line markets in the Far East.

And the prices they quoted for black rhino horns were based on the fees that the end-of –the-line medicine dispensers in China charged their patients small powdery scrapings off Asian rhino horns – which are infinitely more valuable than African rhino horns.

The 1988 RETAIL price for Asian rhino horn ranged between UD$ 40,558 and US$ 42,880 per kilogramme. At US$ 40 000 per kilogramme a good pair of black rhino horns would have retailed at US$ 120 000 – or ten times their REAL value. And a good pair of white rhino horns would have retailed at US$ 160 000.

Altogether, these were the kinds of prices the animal rightist told the CITES delegates that the poachers were getting for elephant ivory and rhino horn in 1989 which resulted in the CITES delegates vote for an international ivory trade ban.

The prices the African poachers were ACTUALLY receiving for black rhino horns – throughout the 1980s (and into the 1990s) – was just US$ 30 per pair! I know this because several arrested poachers in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley this, to me, in 1987. Similar prices were quoted by my contacts in East Africa and in Zimbabwe.

And the prices the poachers received for an average size pair of elephant tusks was between US$ 30 and US$ 40 – across the length and breath of Africa – during the 1980s and 1990s.

The underlying causes of the commercial poaching were far more complicated than Thornton and Curry could ever imagine. They knew so little about Africa and were so little concerned about Africa, that they completely overlooked what was staring them in the face. Their purpose, however, was NOT to stop the poaching. Their objective was to STOP the international ivory trade.

The international trade bans on rhino horn and ivory slowed down the killing of elephants and rhinos but it did not STOP the poaching. Draconian measures like international trade bans will NEVER stop the poaching because they do not address the REAL and underlying causes of the problem. To understand the commercial poaching pandemic we must examine the problem with a completely open mind and we must dig down into the very core of its being.

Africa’s commercial poaching pandemic, in fact, has exactly the same aetiology as that of the AIDS pandemic.

An AIDS patient’s death has a primary or ‘proximate’ cause – the patient’s infection with HIV. It has an ‘ultimate’ cause, too – the common disease that finally kills him. The ultimate cause that kills an AIDS patient could be any one of several common diseases – like tuberculosis, pneumonia, or malaria. There are many others. Most of these diseases can be easily cured with modern medicines but, in this case, the medicines do not work because the AIDS patient’s infection with HIV has broken down his body’s natural immune system. The only way to save an AIDS patient’s life is by curing his HIV infection. Giving an AIDS patient a modern medicine to combat the common disease that is killing him is only palliative. Such treatment cannot ward off the patient’s ultimate death.

2. The proximate ad ultimate causes of the commercial poaching pandemic.
There are several proximate sub-causes that brought about Africa’s commercial poaching pandemic.

The first of these is the fact that, during the colonial era, the forebears of the rural communities that surround Africa’s national parks today, were moved off their land to make it possible for the parks to be created. They were resettled then, normally, on vacant land just outside the boundaries of the new parks. Today these communities covet the national park land which they claim is legitimately theirs. In many cases their forced removal occurred during the life spans of people who are still alive. And the old people remember their old lands – which makes their land claims all the more legitimate.

The second one is the fact that the evicted people occupy land that is unable to support their now greatly expanded families – and there is no longer any more vacant land nearby that they can acquire! So they want the national parks dissolved and they want their old land back. Furthermore, they resent seeing their land being used, seemingly as mere playgrounds for international tourists – most of who are affluent white!

The third matter concerns the fact that the people are required to live cheek-by-jowl, with large and dangerous wild animals that raid their crops and eat their domesticated animals. A small group of just five elephant bulls, in one night, can destroy a family’s entire maize crop, leaving the family with no food for the rest of the year. This happens to some families nearly every year. And just one lion, or one leopard, when it becomes a habitual stock killer, will just return every week to kill another and another of their cattle, sheep and/or goats. And the people have no legitimate means at their disposal to protect themselves from any of these marauding animals. Finally, where the boundaries of the parks are not fenced, even non-dangerous animals come out of the park and graze the people’s lands at night, eating up the grass that the people believe should be reserved to feed their own domesticated stock..

Finally, if a tribesman is caught killing a small duiker, or even just a guinea-fowl, to feed his family he is arrested by the park game rangers and sent to jail for a punitive period of time. There is no love lost between the park staff and the local communities, therefore – on either side – and a war of attrition now polarizes their respective positions.

These four sub-reasons, collectively, make up the FIRST proximate cause that precipitated the commercial poaching pandemic

The SECOND proximate cause is, simply POVERTY.

In the post colonial era there has been little or no investment in rural Africa so there are no jobs available for people living in the remote parts of Africa. It has been touted that the existence of a national park provides the local people with great employment opportunities. This is true, for some but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the employment needs of the communities as a whole!!

So there is no possible way that the local people can augment the meager existence they eke out by the way of their subsistence agriculture. Most people in Africa’s rural communities are now, truthfully, merely wallowing through life within the basic and instinctive physiological level of maslow’s syndrome. And, at THAT level, the people will do ANYTHING in order to survive.

The final key to properly understanding Africa’s ORIGINAL commercial poaching pandemic – the poaching of the continent’s rhinos and elephants – is recognition of the existence of its ultimate causes. These, collectively, can be called ‘The Black market’. The black market for rhino horn and elephant ivory – Africa’s most lucrative international poaching products – comprises many layers.

It begins with the lowly poacher in the field – the man who actually pulls the trigger. This is followed by the first layer of middlemen. In Africa, these comprise, normally, corrupt politicians and corrupt civil servants. They, in turn, sell the rhino horn and the ivory to someone else. Further along the chain someone else purchases the merchandise – and so on and so on. All along this chain money changes hands. And the further along the chain they go, so the commodities gain in monetary value. So black market is not a single entity. It is something of an amorphous lump – sometimes anchored by a few big mafia type linchpins, sometimes comprising a host of smaller hands. No matter how any particular branch of it is structured, however one thing remains the same. At the end of the chain big money is involved, and it is this big money that greases the wheels of Africa’s commercial poaching pandemic, start to finish.

The weakest link in the whole structure is the lowly poacher in the field. Nobody holds a gun to his head and tells him to go and poach elephants and rhinos. He does this because he WANTS to do it, because he HAS to do it, to survive. His own poverty-at-home dictates to him that he MUST poach. And because of the existence of the collective proximate causes, he has no compunction about milking his local national park of its most lucrative wildlife treasure. Why should he? He has no reason to love the park or its animals and he hates its keepers with a passion. So, collectively, all the proximate reasons for the poaching are deeply imbedded in the psyches of the men who pull the triggers. This makes the final and ultimate cause of the commercial poaching a thoroughly viable proposition. And that ultimate cause is the collective and many component parts of the black market.

Furthermore, the means to effect the poaching was, and remains, readily to hand. Following the many wars of liberation fought during the decolonising process, Africa was, and remains, awash with AK 47 assault rifles!

Many people have stated their skepticism about the low returns that I say the poachers receive for their contraband. US$ 30 to US$ 40 seems, to most educated people, an extraordinary low price for such valuable commodities. But these prices must be seen in their proper perspective.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the average African rural family comprised eight people; and, throughout Africa, the ANNUAL rural family income was normally less than US$ 10 – paid, of course, as an equivalent in the local currency. The people lived, therefore, ONLY on what they could produce by way of their subsistence agriculture.

Even though the rhino horn and ivory they procured was VERY valuable at the end-of- line black market, the poachers had no means of getting those products to that end line market, except via the conduit which began with their own corrupt politicians and civil servants. And the people in this first link in the chain were simply not prepared to pay the poachers too high a price because it cut down on their own profit margins! The poachers were held over a barrel, therefore, and they had little room to negotiate.

The US$ 30 or US$ 40 the poachers got for a set or rhino horns, or a pair of elephant tusks should not be looked at in isolation. It should be considered against the fact that the poachers had few other means of earning cash. So, when they shot a rhino or an elephant the poachers gained, perhaps, three times their annual income in one single action – in cash! And the more rhinos and more elephants they shot, the higher were they able to climb up Maslow’ hierarchy of needs scale.

In 1989 CITES international ivory trade ban DID put a spoke in the wheels of the black markets, but it did NOT stop the shooting of rhinos for their horns, and elephants for their tusks. Neither has the black market for rhino horn and of elephants ivory disappeared. It is just more difficult now to get the horns and the tusks into a suitable conduit that will make it worth the poacher’s while.

The CITES rhino horn and ivory trade bans (1975 and 1989) hit at the ultimate cause of the commercial poaching – the black market. But they left ALL the proximate causes of the poaching ENTIRELY intact. This fact is vitally important to comprehend.

Most people believe that, because of the continuing adverse effect that the rhino and ivory trade bans seem to be having on Africa’s commercial poaching pandemic, commercial poaching will now just run along at an insignificant low ebb. And that it will slowly peter out with the efflux of time.

This is NOT happening. The poachers are now starting to kill rhinos and elephants – and – ANY OTHER kind of wild animal – FOR MEAT. And their market is insatiable – and it is local! They are feeding their own starving communities and selling the dried meat surplus to people who live further afield.

The poachers have added the cable snare to their tools-of-the-trade. These they make by unravelling abandoned and damaged hoist cables that festoon every mine dump on the continent. And if anything is a cruel and barbaric way of killing wild animals, snaring them with cables is it.

The killing of wild animals for meat has been described as ‘The Bush Meat Trade’. Up till now it has been associated, by the media, ONLY with the equatorial forest areas of Africa. Few people guessed that the Bush Meat Trade would so readily replace the commercial poaching of rhinos for their horns, and of elephants for their tusks. Nevertheless, it is happening. And it is happening all over Africa. And those with the eyes to see now envisage a new poaching juggernaut developing – one that will be impossible to control.

How, for example, will the authorities catch poachers who will kill wild animals for meat when the killing is being carried out in the remotest parts of the continent?.... When the ‘evidence’ is quickly consumed?...... And when every member of the poverty stricken communities that benefit from the practice, protect the poachers who are feeding them? And what government will condone the searching of the huts of entire villages, by game rangers or by the police or by the military, throughout the whole country? Finally, we must understand that when people are starving no amount of persuasion, or of coercion, will induce them to stop feeding themselves.

In Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park more than 50 percent of the original huge hippo population has recently been poached for meat – and the poachers pay the game rangers to turn a blind eye. The few elephants that remain in Uganda’s Kyambura Game Reserve are being killed for meat. And everywhere, the Uganda Kob is being wiped out through the actions of poachers using wire snares.

Kafue National Park in Zambia is criss-crossed with tracks of poachers and their bicycles –parallel tracks that are readily picked up from the air. The meat of the animals killed is transported on the poachers’ bicycles which are pushed back to their villages on the outskirts of the park. Once there it is immediately distributed into their contraband networks.

Elephants, buffaloes and other game animals are being killed in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, not for ivory, but for meat. The litany goes on and on. And authorities, where meat poaching is taking place, seem unable – or unwilling – to do anything about it.

No CITES international trade ban can control THIS kind of commercial poaching. It is uncontrolled because the local communities are behind the poachers 100 percent. And as the rural populations grow in number – doubling every 20 years – so the meat poaching pandemic will reduce Africa’s National Parks to the state of empty shells. And the more people there are the less likely will it be that government law enforcement officers will be able to contain the people’s imperative to poach. Poaching wild animals for meat will very soon be the ONLY way that many rural people in Africa will be able to survive – even if it is just for one more year! And I believe that some time inside the next fifty years the people of Africa will become unbelievably desperate – and they will then do ANYTHING to survive –even just for one more day. And in 50 years time it is likely there will be five times as many people in Africa as there are today!

Does all this mean the future of Africa’s wildlife will ultimately depend upon the governments of the day being able to win the constant wars of attrition that will then be continually waged between the national park administrations and their starving and poverty–stricken neighbor communities? Will permanent garrisons of government soldiers have to be stationed in our national parks to keep our wild animals safe – as is the case in Nepal’s Royal Chitwan National Park?

Would not the development of an alternative and symbiotic arrangement between Africa’s national parks and their local rural communities be MUCH better for the national parks and their wild animals, be MUCH better for Africa’s people and, in the end, be MUCH more acceptable to Africa’s society –at–large?

Link to this post 25 May 07

About the author:

Ron Thompson served in the National Parks Department of Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia and Nyasaland and subsequently Southern Rhodesia) for 24 years retiring at the rank of Provincial Warden in charged of Hwange National Park. He qualified at the University of Rhodesia as an ecologist and served as a Member of the British Institute of Biology, and as a Chartered Biologist for the EU for some 25 years before his retirement. He emigrated to South Africa in 1983 where he served 1 year as the Chief Nature Conservation Officer for Ciskei, then 3 years as the Director of the Bophuthatswana National Parks and Wildlife Management Board. He pioneered the capture and translocation of the black rhino. He has written 5 books. One is required reading for the Higher Diploma in Nature Conservation at the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria, South Africa. His abiding interest, love and concerns are all about how Africa's National Parks are being managed. His adult career and service to wildlife spanned 47 years, exposing him to the full range of Africa's wildlife management affairs.

Link to this post 25 May 07


Thank you for posting this interesting article. I'm going to print it up so I can read it again and think about it more over the weekend.

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