Dozens of elephants were slaughtered in Chad in just a week. Then there was a study that estimated 62 percent of central Africa’s pachyderms were killed between 2002 and 2011. And a report that 80 percent of the water buffalo in the Serengeti have been lost to poaching, along with 2,000 elephants and nearly all the rhinos. The United Nations Environment Programme says that 22,218 great apes, more than half chimpanzees, have been killed since 2005.
In a rare spot of good news, six rare white rhinos were secretly transported to Botswana to escape rampant poaching in South Africa. But that’s just a drop in the bucket when two dozen rhinos can be killed in a week.
Thousands and thousands of iconic wildlife are killed each year in Africa, and I can’t help but think that the problem is getting worse.
There are plenty of suggestions for how to stop the tide: Legalize trade in rhino horn. Build fences around lion habitat. Slick ad campaigns and a multi-national anti-poaching force. But what strikes me about all these proposals and plans is that they don’t get to the heart of the problem — greed.
As long as the money to be made through the wildlife trade outweighs the risks and punishments, poaching will continue.
Those caught poaching animals or trafficking in their remains are often let off with little more than a slap on the wrist, usually just a fine. A Chinese ivory smuggler, for example, was fined all of $350 for a haul worth $2,500 before being set free. Punishment in the U.S. for these crimes can be more harsh — a father and son team of rhino horn smugglers faced a fine of up to $1 million in one case last year — but I do wonder how much of that was for tax evasion rather than wildlife trafficking. And though there are a few countries where poaching and smuggling can bring a sentence of jail time, convictions can be rare.
Calls for Google to remove ads for ivory are at least trying to get at the root of the problem. While there is a market for things like ivory and rhino horn and lion parts, there will be people willing to kill elephants and big cats and other amazing creatures.
But how do you fight a rumor that rhino horn will cure cancer? Or that lion bone will increase a man’s sex drive? That God wants to you wear ivory? That a chimp bone will make a child stronger?
Fences may help keep lions or elephants from straying into villages, but it won’t stop a determined man with a gun from trying to make a few thousand dollars. Legalizing trade in animal parts isn’t going to stop demand for them. Slick ad campaigns won’t deter someone who truly believes they’ve found a cure for the disease that’s killing them. And building up an army of anti-poaching forces can’t protect every animal on the continent, especially when there are still legal options (i.e., trophy hunting) for obtaining wildlife.
What we need, around the world, is better laws against the wildlife trade, better enforcement of these laws, and harsher punishments attached to wildlife crimes. And we should promote projects that give local people incentive to protect the wildlife around them, such as through ecotourism.
Because it’s only when we change the equation such that an elephant or a rhino or a lion is worth more alive than dead that the killing will stop.
Image of a poached elephant carcass in Cameroon in 2009, courtesy of flickr user USFWS Headquarters