The Destruction of Ivory Poaching and the Illegal Wildlife Trade: Part 2

According to the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, fish have feelings too. Whenever my sons go fishing they always tell me, “Dad it doesn’t hurt a fish to get hooked.” Well I watch and I see and I believe it’s painful for the fish.
— Donald Trump

Targeted Species

African Bush (Savannah) and African Forest Elephants

Both species of African elephant present high-value targets for poachers in all regions of sub-Saharan Africa, including the rare “desert elephants” of Mali.  

Documenting the long-term consequences of social disruption caused by poaching on the African elephant is crucial to the conservation and management of this species. Mortality is concentrated among the largest adults with the biggest tusks but old matriarchs (the oldest adult females that provide the social glue in elephant herds) are particularly vulnerable. Their tusks are large and their groups easier to find than solitary adult males. Many family groups lose their matriarchs, compromising their social, competitive and physiological functioning. Young offspring often perish with their mothers, causing a disrupted age structure, and older offspring are orphaned to range solitarily or in atypical groups of unrelated females.

African Rhinoceroses

Both the white rhinoceros and the much smaller black rhinoceros are targeted for their horns.

Asian Elephants

Although only male Asian elephants typically have tusks, elephant populations throughout the continent are being thinned by sustained poaching of the last several decades and habitat loss. An imbalance in the number of males, who are killed for their tusks, and females is disrupting the ability for healthy females to find mates and therefore the birthrate is dropping.

Asian Rhinoceroses

All three Asian rhinos are hunted for their horns. These are the greater one-horned rhinoceros (Indian rhinoceros), Javan rhinoceros, and Sumatran rhinoceros.


In Asia, several species of bears, with the exception of the giant panda, are illegally hunted for their paws. Some bears, particularly the Asian Black Bears, Moon/Sun Bears are also illegally caught and farmed for their bile which is used by some practitioners of traditional Asian folk medicine.


Different from other big cats, cheetahs suffer from both poaching from their skins as well as live capture for sale as exotic pets, particularly in the Middle East.


Throughout Africa and Asia, the skins of leopards are used by rural communities participating in a traditional lifestyle as well as wealthy individuals purchasing the skins as a fashion accessory or simply to show off the skin in their home.


Otter skins have been an integral part of the legal fur trade for centuries. However, over-hunting and illegal hunting largely for Asian fur markets again threatens several species of otter.


One of the most poorly known and understood groups of mammals, the eight species of pangolin across Africa and Asia are being poached in massive numbers to supply Asian practitioners of folk medicine and those who seek a culinary delicacy.

Sea Turtles

The world’s seven distinct species of sea turtles are vital to the health of beach and shoreline environments, but they are dramatically impacted by careless trawling, beach destruction, and illegal harvesting of their eggs.


Asian nations have turned to large-scale captive breeding techniques to supply their commercial farming industry. Today, there are more tigers in captivity in China than in the wild. 


Few countries provide statistics on the number of poachers arrested or killed, wildlife illegally killed, or the number of rangers and other personnel killed in the line of duty. The following information summarizes information from a variety of statistics available from reliable sources of hard data based on peer-reviewed scientific studies.

Ivory poaching and the resulting trafficking is a widespread issue throughout all of Africa, but many nations are securing what populations they have left to safeguard the ecological heritage of their country as well as to retain a strong tourism industry. Many of these nations depend on their natural heritage to bring in tourists who greatly stimulate the economy.

Sean Willmore, president of the International Ranger Federation and founder of the Thin Green Line Foundation, estimates that about 2 rangers are killed each week, but that the number could be higher. This number signifies individuals employed as anti-poaching rangers by profession, not military personnel or other individuals that might take part in ground or air operations. Few countries publish crime statistics relating to the number of poachers arrested due to varying types of poaching, different penalties for different types of poaching, and potentially long trial processes.

Rhino Poaching Statistics

Hundreds of thousands of rhinoceros populated Africa and Asia at the beginning of the twentieth century even after centuries of demand for rhino horn from the Middle East, India, China, and eventually the West. Today, illegal hunting accounts for the vast majority of rhinoceros deaths and poaching throughout the Asian and African continents is largely spurred by demand from wealthy individuals in Asian nations eager to show off their financial success. Antique and gray market products of ambiguous age still thrive around the world as the price of rhino horn increases to more than USD $60,000 per kilogram ($1,700 per ounce).

The most recent thorough and comprehensive studies and census estimates suggest that there are estimated to be roughly 20,700 southern white rhino and 4,885 black rhinoceros in Africa, including their subspecies, but as of 2018 the actual number is likely much fewer. South Africa’s Kruger National Park is home to 7,000-8,300 rhino as of 2016. The northern white rhino subspecies has been reduced to just two living in East Africa. The three species of rhino in Asia are also threatened by the demand for rhino horn as a symbol of wealth or to be used as part of traditional oriental medicines. As of the end of 2017 there are an estimated 3,333 greater one-horned rhino (Indian rhino), and at least 67 of the Javan species, and as few as 30 rhinos of the Sumatran species left in the wild.

Africa’s white rhino species is the largest of any living rhinoceros species, weighing up to 3,600 kilograms (7,920 pounds), and is the continent’s third-largest species after the African bush elephant and African forest elephant. The black rhino, which is gray, can weigh up to 1,400 kg (3,100 pounds). The lifespan of a wild rhinoceros is unknown but expected to be 35-50 years for any species.


Elephant Poaching Statistics

African elephants are split into two distinct species: the African bush elephant, the most prevalent species, and the smaller African forest elephant. The bush elephant is the world’s largest living species of land animal. In both African elephant species, the males and females have tusks; these are modified incisors that can grow to weigh dozens of kilograms and are used for a variety of essential purposes in an elephant’s daily life. These tusks are a significant source of ivory which is used in ivory ornaments and jewelry, however mammoth tusks are also being excavated and their ivory traded legally.

From 2003-2014, with the exception of 2005, CITES reports have shown that estimated levels of illegal elephant killings in Central Africa have been occurring at unsustainable levels relative to natural population growth. This means that elephants in this region are dying faster than they are able to reproduce. The same report indicates West Africa is also thought to be suffering from unsustainable levels of elephant poaching from 2007-2009 and 2011-2014.

As a means of mitigating localized population losses a number of programs have arisen to protect elephants, reduce human-elephant conflict where elephants regularly come into contact with farms, and stop poaching. For decades there have also been elephant relocation programs, also known as translocation projects, which move elephants from areas of high-population or over-population to habitats that can sustain and benefit from their reintroduction. African bush elephant populations were estimated by the Great Elephant Census, which concluded in August 2016, at roughly 350,000 and in a separate census of African forest elephants an estimated 18,000-36,500 individuals in select protected parks.


Leopard Poaching Statistics

Leopards are a species of big cat that is native throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, from the bushvelds of South Africa to the jungles of the Congo, and formerly resided in parts of North Africa. The leopard can also be found throughout Southeast Asia, India, and select regions of the Middle East, however it is increasingly rare in the Arabian Peninsula and highlands of Iraq and Iran.

Leopards are solitary animals that will hunt by using a combination of stealthy ambushes and immense strength to catch prey as much as five times its own size. Its intricate spots and spot groupings on its body give it impeccable camouflage and the use of clever tactics has earned the leopard its reputation as the “prince of stealth.” This contrasts sharply with the cheetah which openly stalks its prey and uses a burst of incredible speed to catch it.

The spot groupings on the leopard, called rosettes, are also what make its skin a highly sought after status symbol throughout many traditional and modern cultures of Asia. In the early 2000s a quality leopard skin would sell for USD $850 in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.


Tiger Poaching Statistics

India and many Asian nations have a relationship with the tiger going back hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. However recent interest in traditional folk medicines, often referred to as Traditional Chinese Medicine, from China and Southeast Asia has kept tiger poaching profitable in recent decades. Many cultures in Asia have a long history of believing the tiger has supernatural or restorative powers, making the animals valued for their essentially all of their parts.

Tiger skins have a strong value to traditional Buddhist monasteries but also to contemporary Asian celebrities who have worn the skins as provocative status symbols. According to Walker’s Mammals of the World a tiger skin could sell for approximately USD $4,250 in 1977, about USD $16,880 in 2015 dollars. A report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) from 2004 indicated that tiger skins were being sold for up to USD $10,000 in Tibet primarily to Chinese, Taiwanese, and European tourists. Teeth and claws also have a special importance to buyers as a status symbol. Tiger bones are also highly sought after for use in medicines and health tonics and in the past few years tiger bone wine has become a curiosity, despite being illegal. In Traditional Chinese Medicine a tiger’s penis is believed to be a natural enhancer of male virility and in 2006 a dish sold for USD $5,700 in Beijing (about USD $6,800 in 2015).

Although China has few wild tigers of its own, a report by TRAFFIC estimates the country keeps thousands of tigers in captivity, meanwhile restaurants in China claim to receive meat and parts from farms and breeding centers. This data is difficult to reflect in official statistics as China, Korea, and other nations farming animals for their parts are reticent to admit to the source of tiger meat and parts within the country, whether from captivity or from external sources. In spite of China’s ban of the tiger parts trade there are still incidents of tiger parts being sold to consumers.

There are a total of 13 countries that still have wild populations of tigers. While China used to have among the most, the country is now home to very few wild tigers and potentially thousands held in captivity for amusement or farming. Today India is thought to have among the largest wild tiger populations, however this accounts for only the Bengal subspecies. Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam also have wild tiger populations. In February 2015 these “Tiger Nations” agreed to create an intelligence-sharing network to fight poaching and trafficking.


Bear Poaching Statistics

Although most species of bear are not endangered every species is given the highest level of protection under CITES Appendix I, with the exception of a few brown bear populations. Illegal hunting or trade in these species’ parts is prohibited at an international level and many countries with domestic bear populations also impose protections and import or export restrictions.

Several species of bears in Asia and North America are subject to illegal hunting. The bears may be killed for their claws, skin or other trophies; for their meat, particularly their paws; or for specific organs used in traditional Chinese medicine. In Asia live bears are illegally caught and sold to consumers as pets or to bear bile farms which harvest a small amount of liquid from the gallbladder that purportedly has medicinal effects. While many Chinese bear farms claim that they have breeding programs to create a fresh supply of bears there is little evidence of this being true and some farms have admitted to relying on taking bears from the wild in order to meet consumer demand. 

Environmental Crimes and Arrests Statistics

Many poaching incidents do not lead to arrests and there are several countries with lax penalties for illegally hunted protected wildlife species. As of 2015, at least 40 member countries of the CITES had a maximum penalty of only a cash fine, while only 34 countries reported having a maximum penalty of jail time of more than four years. Only 56 countries had a maximum penalty of four or fewer years and 51 countries went unreported. Failure to impose stiff penalties for detrimental wildlife crimes may fail to discourage many honest people from becoming wildlife or fish poachers and may also be supporting existing corruption and bribery of law enforcement and judges overseeing these cases. Even with these maximum penalties some judges are routinely giving lighter sentences and in numerous cases known poachers are regularly set free and their firearms immediately returned with the help of bribes or “fees” paid to court or prison officials.


Kenya’s port of Mombasa is the major transit route for the ferrying of illegal ivory from the East and Central Africa region. Ivory is often chopped into small pieces, polished and neatly cut into small cubes and circles to conceal the tusk shape during the scanning process. The ivory chips are then packed in sacks and hidden inside a container which is then declared as normal export goods. Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta said he will lead calls for a "total ban on the trade of elephant ivory" at the CITES (Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species) conference in South Africa in September 2016.

The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), established in 1990, routinely publishes data on arrests made by their growing ranks. They operate in many of the national parks and national reserves throughout Kenya and help to coordinate cross-border information sharing and operations with Tanzanian wildlife agencies as well as other anti-poaching groups. In 2013 the efforts of KWS yielded 1,549 total arrests and prosecutions for environmental crimes and a recovery of 10,106 kilograms (22,280 pounds) of bushmeat and 23,145 kg (51,025 pounds) of ivory.

In 2013 arrests related to environmental crimes were down significantly compared to 2011, however ivory recovery was up significantly. This may be due to ivory recovery statistics reflecting efforts from outside Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) jurisdiction or through coordination with other anti-trafficking task forces.


After a significant deterioration of its environment, as well as wildlife loss due to poaching, Nepal has recently taken strong measures to reverse the causes and created community education programs as well as conservation programs for a host of wildlife species including Bengal tiger, leopard, snow leopard, greater one-horned rhino (Indian rhino). The majority of the country’s roughly 407 rhinoceros reside within Chitwan National Park where protected zones and a program to better distribute the rhino across protected areas has yielded positive results.

In 2007 legislation and law enforcement efforts had culminated in more than 100 successful prosecutions relating to wildlife crimes, each with a fine of NRs 100,000 (USD $1,500 in 2007) and/or a jail sentence of up to 15 years.

South Africa

South Africa has the largest populations of rhinoceros of any African nation. For a number of reasons, the famous Kruger National Park, an expansive 19,633 square kilometers (7,580 sq. mi), is the largest target in southern Africa. South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs as well as the South African National Parks (SAN Parks) typically releases quarterly data on both rhinoceros poaching statistics and arrests of suspected poachers. SAN Parks does not release statistics on anti-poaching rangers and military injured or killed in the line of duty.

In a 2014 year-end report SAN Parks reports that 1,020 rhinoceros have been killed by poachers and 344 suspected poachers neutralized. More recent data reported by the South African Department Environmental Affairs indicates 1,215 rhinos were poached in 2014 and 386 poachers, couriers, and syndicate members have been arrested or killed. In the 2015 annual report Minister of the Environment Edna Molewa reports that throughout calendar year 2015 there were 317 suspected poachers arrested, a 23% increase over 2014 when 258 individuals were arrested. This conflicts with their own reports that at least 344 people were arrested or neutralized during 2014 (other sources suggest 386 arrests, as shown below), suggesting that perhaps as many as 128 suspected poachers and traffickers were killed or arrested in other jurisdictions that year.

Data reported by SAN Parks or the South African Department of Environment frequently reports number of “arrests” related to poaching. However, an interview from August 2014 with Major-General Johan Jooste suggests that the number of arrests reported is actually the number of people arrested or killed. Therefore, the below statistics have been amended to reflect the ambiguity of the term “neutralized” to describe these poachers. Mozambique’s former president Joaquim Chissano, who served from 1986 to 2005, claims that from 2010 through 2014 nearly 500 Mozambicans were killed in Kruger National Park by South African rangers and law enforcement.

The latest data summarizing the year 2016 shows that 680 individuals were arrested or killed as a result of law enforcement actions spanning multiple agencies and every region of South Africa. The figure is a substantial increase from the number neutralized in previous years, with Kruger National Park reflecting a more than 100 percent increase despite losing 1,054 rhino, only a 121 decrease (10.29 percent) from 2015. It is crucial to note that the Department of Environmental Affairs is now reporting figures for Kruger National Park as “both within and outside the Kruger National Park” which obfuscates the surrounding provinces which previously had been reported separately.


Like other East African nations, Tanganyika and Zanzibar (later unified as Tanzania) are known to have played a major role in the well-documented East African ivory trade which for nearly a century, and likely the better part of two centuries, provided the world with ivory. Since the democratization and stabilization of East Africa after decolonization, Tanzania and especially Kenya, have been viewed as the leaders in wildlife conservation, especially in regards to elephants.

In 2014 the Tanzania’s National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit (NTSCIU) was formed with part of its duty to investigate and arrest major wildlife traffickers acting within the country. Since the special unit’s creation they have made hundreds of arrests, participated in several high-profile operations including Operation “SpiderNet,” as well as made the arrests of two major wildlife traffickers: Yang Feng Lan, a Chinese national known as “Ivory Queen,” and Boniface Matthew Mariango, known to Tanzanian law enforcement as “Shetani” or “Devil.”

In the one-year period from June 2016 to June 2017 the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism announced that 3,185 people were arrested in relation to poaching wildlife or timber. However, the number of those arrested that were actually charged with a crime was said to be at least 1,500. During this time 270 firearms and 1,058 rounds of ammunition were confiscated. This represents a lower ratio of firearms expected to be carried by a group of poachers, which is one for every three people, however some types of poachers use of bows and poison arrows in Kenya and Tanzania and this may account for the discrepancy.


Greatly effected by years of government-sponsored poaching, trafficking by foreign diplomats, and lax enforcement of anti-poaching laws, Zimbabwe remains a region with great political and economic strife that fails to effectively utilize or protect its dwindling wildlife populations and natural resources. It also suffers from significant corruption and poverty, with an estimated 84 percent of its citizens unemployed while official unemployment figures vary from 60-90 percent.

In October of 2015 the Zimbabwean government reported that 876 Zimbabwean nationals had been arrested that year, as were 44 foreigners, for poaching. These figures included the arrest of five game rangers caught poisoning elephants as well as all types of subsistence, commercial, and criminal poachers. At least 22 suspected poachers, 6 of them foreigners, were killed. Some of these individuals were killed during shootouts with rangers working for the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. The number of arrests leading to prosecution and ultimately conviction is unknown and the reliability of Zimbabwe’s official statistics is considered to be low. Their statistics may be inflated or whitewashed.