Most poachers and African criminal syndicates receive only 5-10 percent of the retail value for the animal parts they poach. Even in destitute parts of Africa and Asia this is little reward for what can be a very risky task of spending days tracking dangerous wildlife in their natural habitat. Coordinated efforts to exterminate rhino and elephants in central Africa, as well as systematic poaching in Southeast Asia and China, have made it easier for criminal syndicates to organize a market for tiger and leopard skins, elephant ivory, and rhino horn. This has provided a channel for low-level poachers and high-level rebel militias to sell their animal parts to middlemen who then smuggle the cargo en mass to destinations around the globe where the items are sold for exorbitant prices.
In 2013, the street-price for rhino horn in Asia was USD $60,000-100,000 per kilogram. At roughly USD $1,700-2,840 per ounce, more than the price of gold, it was believed to be a better investment than real estate and an easy way to show off wealth. According to anti-poaching forces in South Africa, a Mozambican poacher would earn R100,000 (USD $10,000) per hunt or over R200,000 per horn depending on the middleman.
In January of 2015, Ugandan officials seized a shipment of 137 ivory tusks weighing 700 kg and destined for Amsterdam. The ivory in this shipment had an estimated street value of USD $1.5 million or USD $2,142 per kilo or roughly USD $973 per pound. As a result of international pressure to end the illicit ivory trade, as well as other factors impacting legal domestic markets where elephant ivory is still sold, the average price of ivory in China has fallen to USD $730 per kilogram (USD $331 per pound).
India’s diverse ecosystems suffer from the loss of its the native species of Bengal tiger, leopard, Indian rhinoceros, and Asian elephant. In 2009, a single tiger skin smuggled from India would sell for 650,000 rupees in China, approximately USD $134,000 or 91,920 yuan. However, in recent years poaching and wildlife trafficking have received more attention and more poachers and traffickers are being sentenced to jail time for their crimes.
Who Are the Poachers?
There are many kinds of individuals that illegally hunt animals, illegally fish, or harvest plants or trees that are not their own. Some groups and businesses may even illegally farm public land and destroy natural resources in the process. People commit these crimes for a variety of reasons. As a result, penalties vary from country to country and may result in long jail sentences or simply a small fine based on laws that may be decades old.
However, many non-governmental organizations and government agencies are strengthening anti-poaching and anti-trafficking enforcement in the field and through legislation around the world. They’re also cracking down on illegal poaching of all kinds as well as catching illegal smugglers of plant and animal products.
Wildlife poachers are the people on the ground illegally hunting, fishing, and snaring. Not all illegal hunting is the same and while some groups struggle to survive others are seeking out ways to exploit the environment and profit from it as quickly as possible even at the expense of their community and nation.
Subsistence Poachers and Farmers
Subsistence farmers often live in settled communities that must find ways of coexisting with the wildlife around them. At times this close proximity can lead to conflict between humans and wildlife and there are few governmental and non-governmental organizations that have solutions in place to prevent subsistence farmers from killing wildlife they feel threatened by.
Most subsistence poachers are simply people that live in rural areas that illegally hunt, seeking to put food on their table with game that they have shot, trapped, or foraged and cooked themselves. They are not big-game hunters and do not kill high-value wildlife with the intention of selling their trophies. However, many of these people may be committing crimes by shooting protected wildlife, illegally hunting, or hunting on private or protected land. With few other opportunities for employment or nourishment these individuals may be contributing to substantial losses of non-protected wildlife and in doing so negatively impact the balance of their local ecosystem.
Commercial poachers throughout South America, Asia, and Africa are typically not specialized hunters. They kill local wildlife for their meat to be sold at local or regional markets. Illegal business contributes to the sale of millions of tonnes of bushmeat each year but may be the sole source of high-protein food for many rural people.
Organized Crime and Criminal Syndicates
Criminal syndicates are involved in distributing goods purchased from low-level poachers to national and international buyers. Top syndicates operate ivory and rhino horn trafficking operations at an international level and bribe businesses and government officials at all levels. The knowledge and connections of these syndicates are essential to many kinds of poachers and wildlife traffickers profiting from the illegal wildlife trade.
Rebel and Insurgent Militias
Armed insurgent groups and rebel forces throughout Africa have perpetrated human rights violations, war crimes, and claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks on the people of sovereign nations. Some of these groups are supplementing their income by mining for resources and committing large-scale poaching that is wiping out elephant and rhino populations in West and Central Africa.
Military and Corrupt Officials
Throughout the world there are military leaders, high-ranking officials, and state employees taking advantage of their position to exploit their country. Some choose the low-risk, high-reward illegal wildlife trade as their means of supplementing their income or currying favor with foreign governments.
Wildlife Traffickers and Smugglers
Individuals, regional syndicates, and transnational organizations around the world participate in the trafficking and sale of exotic animals and protected or endangered species without respect to local environmental sustainability, the safety of the animal, or legitimate pet shops and breeders that are forced to compete with poaching which undercuts their business. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that the global illegal wildlife trade and environmental crimes, including illegal logging, is worth USD $70-213 billion each year. Some of these individuals also engage in cross-over crimes by helping to poach animals, falsify hunting or fishing licenses, traffick drugs, or smuggle undeclared goods.
Who Are the Buyers of Illicit Wildlife Parts?
People that purchase illegally obtained wildlife parts such as bear paws, lion claws, and leopard skins are not directly poaching, but they may be indirectly contributing to poaching and trafficking of wildlife and their money may be funding organized crime, drug traffickers, and even rebel militias.
Buyers of Bear Parts
Bears feature prominently in many cultures because of their power and sometimes human-like qualities. In some cultures, bear paw is an exotic food dating back thousands of years. In some nations farming bears has become common, not necessarily for their meat, but for their bile which some believe has a medicinal effect.
Buyers of Elephant Ivory
Ivory tusks and worked ivory have been kept as ornamental trophies and a sign of wealth for hundreds of years across a variety of cultures. Ivory found its way into other objects as well and demand from by Japan, Europe, and the United States created a surge in elephant poaching that resulted in hundreds of tonnes of ivory being shipped out of East Africa each year since at least 1932.
Since then, elephant populations in Africa have dropped from millions to historically low levels of 400,000-750,000 based on population estimates carried out by independent organizations. The international ban in the trade of ivory, as well as individual nations banning certain ivory, has attempted to end the illegal hunting and conserve remaining populations of the two African elephant species and the one Asian elephant species. However not all nations are doing their part and illicit ivory is still making its way out of Africa.
Buyers of Rhino Horn
2,100 years ago, rhinoceros horn’s purported medicinal effects were documented in ancient Chinese texts. These purported cures continue to drive a large portion of real rhino horn sales in regions with cultures that believe in Traditional Chinese medicine, but people have found many uses for rhinoceros horn over the centuries. During China’s Tang dynasty (618-907) rhino horns from Africa were carved for the Emperor, a craft that would continue for a thousand years throughout many dynasties. In the 8th century C.E. rhinoceros horn began being used as an exotic material for Yemeni daggers, called janbiya.
While rhino populations during these periods are unknown, it’s presumed that the majority of rhinoceros horn was supplied from Africa because Asia’s rhinoceros were both less numerous and had smaller horns. Due to various methods of over-exploitation an entire rhino species in Africa had been nearly wiped out by 1900. This drastic decline lead to conservation efforts for some of the rhinoceros populations and those protections are responsible for the resurgence of the white rhinoceros in southern Africa. Over the next century demand for rhinoceros horn led to increased poaching, smuggling, and high-level corruption that fed demand even while international trade in rhino horn was being banned. Poaching has not ceased and since 2008 a resurgence of rhino poaching in southern Africa, driven largely by consumer demand from Asia, has left all species of rhinoceros in danger of extinction. Today, weight for weight, rhino horn is worth more than gold.
Buyers of Lion, Tiger, and Leopard Parts
Like bears, lions and tigers play a role in the traditions and cultures of many nations. For some cultures their body parts have come to symbolize strength, power, and even sexual potency, making tiger penis and meat a rare and expensive delicacy in some parts of the world. The skins of tigers are also prized, as are leopard skins which are used both for ornamentation and for traditional clothing in some cultures. The trade in tiger bones, heavily supplemented by lion bones, is used to create traditional folk medicines of dubious efficacy and wines.
Buyers of Pangolin Scales
Pangolins are a unique family of eight mammalian species which primarily eat ants and termites. Across parts of Africa and Asia they have historically been consumed for bushmeat as well as traditional medicines, despite a lack of evidence of any medicinal benefit. A resurgence in the use of traditional folk medicines has resulted in poaching of all pangolin species and an increase in pressure on Asian populations. This has resulted in an intercontinental trade of African pangolins poached primarily for the Asian market where their meat is considered a delicacy and their scales, blood, and other parts are incorporated into both folk remedies and pharmaceutical medicines.