Can we ever really stop people from poaching?
All the law-abiding hunters I know hate poachers. They steal precious wildlife resources from the rest of us. Worse, they give all hunters a bad name because most members of the public don't know how to differentiate between the true conservationists and the criminals.
But can we ever completely stop wildlife crime? Perhaps the use of a new technology or a different approach to wildlife laws would help?
Let's look at the topic a little more in depth and talk about what we can do to help end poaching on a worldwide scale.
Is there enough law enforcement?
About 15 years ago here in Michigan, someone shot a deer in the middle of the night near my old home. My parents were woken up in the middle of the night at the shot and saw a vehicle speed away. The next morning, we found an 8-point buck, still in full velvet (it was early September), dead from a single gun wound laying in the field out back.
We called the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to report the hit and run. It was especially concerning because the poacher shot the buck ACROSS our lawn! But to our dismay, no officer ever showed up to investigate!
I know there wasn't much to go on in this case. We had a dead deer and the estimated time it was shot (around 2:00 a.m.), but no description of the suspect or vehicle. Still, it was infuriating that they didn't send someone out to at least examine the crime scene.
Sadly, I think this incident is a symptom of a larger problem of wildlife law enforcement: Not enough officers to go around.
It likely wasn't worth their time to come out with such limited info to go on. For some states, when you have only one game warden patrolling an area the size of Rhode Island, well, there's only going to be so much that officer can do in one shift.
So, why aren't there more officers? Well, that points to another problem: declining hunter numbers. The U.S. hit an all-time high number for hunters around 1998 and participation has been dipping ever since. That's less hunting licenses sold, and less money being generated to fund the state agencies that oversee wildlife law enforcement. Less money means a smaller staff and fewer officers afield working on anti-poaching efforts.
Keep in mind that in almost every state, conservation officers are fully-fledged law enforcement. That means they respond to non-wildlife or nature related calls too. If there's a drunk driver or a report of a house fire, and they're the closest unit to the scene, that's going to take priority away from an illegal wild animal kill investigation every time.
In the case of that buck poached in my yard, I think that other stuff took priority. That's why it was never investigated.
But can an increased law enforcement presence really slow all poaching? Yes and no. Let's look at the poaching problems African Countries are facing. Rhino and elephant populations have been devastated by poachers killing the animals for their ivory.
This illegal ivory is then sold, usually on the black market in Asia for a hefty price. The illegal ivory trade is so lucrative, many places like Zimbabwe, Kenya and South Africa have specialty anti-poaching units to guard the game reserves.
They have had some great success. Especially in places like Kruger National Park. They haven't been able to stop poachers completely, but they've done some great work on the front lines and in local communities to change minds and slow the threat to many endangered species.
In Sudan, the extreme step of 24/7 armed guards are used to keep the last white rhinos on earth safe. It's an effective method. But we obviously can't do this for every African elephant and rhino that's under threat.
It's hard to stop all instances of an illegal activity with something as lucrative as poaching. In some cases, the poachers are even bold enough to raid zoos. That's how lucrative the illegal wildlife trade is. So, we think more law enforcement would certainly help. But we also don't think that's the end-all solution for ending all wildlife crime. There are more factors at play here. Let's look at some other factors.
Are penalties harsh enough?
Here in the United States, most poaching violations are considered misdemeanors. That means the punishments for most poaching offenses often result in fines and or community service. Often, they bring a loss of hunting and fishing privileges too. But only for a limited time in most cases.
Sometimes the punishment for these crimes can be infuriating for some hunters. Take for instance a bear poaching case in Missouri three years ago. The poacher confessed his crime but was only fined $99.50 for poaching a black bear.
Or, how about the Minnesota case where a man was accused of chasing a buck with his pontoon boat until it drowned? Charges were dropped in that case and the man only had to pay $500 restitution for the deer. These penalties really are a slap on the wrist!
Felony charges for poaching are extremely rare. It only seems to happen in the most extreme poaching cases. Such as that giant Ohio poaching ring that poached nearly 100 deer over several years. At least one member of that ring was sentenced to prison time, but most were handed fines. But many of the charges in that case were only partially related to hunting because investigators found money laundering, illegal sale of wild game meat and drug charges among other things.
One more recent hunting case out of Wyoming saw one man hit with $250,000 in fines. That sounds impressive. Until you find out that was $4,000 restitution each for 36 deer. That's 36 out of the whopping 110 deer carcasses recovered from the man's property!
Very rare are big charges for a single animal like what Travis Johnson faced in Texas in 2017. Johnson was fined $53,000 for poaching a single deer. The fine was larger because the buck was a staggering 273 inches non-typical. With the harshest penalties being so rare, it's no wonder so many poachers are repeat offenders.
Penalties are a little harsher in Africa. Take Boniface Matthew Mariango. This man was known as "The Devil" in Tanzania. He was the kingpin of one of the most notorious elephant poaching rings in history. When he was finally caught, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Another notorious case is that of Chumlong Lemtongthai from Thailand. This man organized a rhino poaching ring that posed as legitimate big game hunting. Lemtongthai hired women from Thailand and Vietnam to pose as hunters to get the necessary permits and paperwork to import tusks as hunting trophies.
But it was all a lie. The ivory was then sold on the Asian black market. By the time wildlife officials crushed the ring, they had poached over 50 rhinos. This case is a good example of how potential punishments for poaching are often scaled back. Lemtongthai was sentenced to 30 years in prison initially. But through appeals, he only served six years before being released.
Six years in prison is a major punishment, but we can't help but feel like that's not good enough. Especially considering how quickly rhino populations are dwindling. At some point, we've got to make an example of people and let them know this is unacceptable.
Some states, like Minnesota, have toyed with the idea of making poaching crimes felonies, but that's about as far as the idea has gotten. While the idea was being discussed, game wardens noted that the number of citations given out in the state keeps going up. It seems poachers simply aren't getting the message from these lesser charges.
Some may argue it's extreme to charge felonies for wildlife crime, but what choice do we have at this point? People aren't really getting the message from the slap on the wrist fines most states give.
And while hunter numbers are declining in the U.S., poaching crimes sure aren't. When discussing the possibility of felonies for poaching, Minnesota wildlife officials noted there was a 35 percent increase in citations and warnings from 2014 to 2015 alone. Officers issued 3,900 such citations.
One could argue we're making things harder for our game wardens with smaller fines. If poachers know what they're doing will amount to no more than the equivalent of a speeding ticket, they might be more willing to take a chance with an illegal animal.
If only we had some way to both increase the number of game wardens AND increase penalties for poaching, we imagine we'd see a significant decrease here in the states. Alas, that is probably a pipe dream. But there are other options for potentially reducing poaching, at least in some areas of the world.
Stopping poaching through other means
The World Wildlife Fund, aka the WWF, is a bit hit or miss with hunters. They only sort of support it, but I did find some common ground with them on their website and that's their wildlife crime initiative.
This organization is taking an interesting view on stopping poaching of threatened species in Africa. Instead of simply targeting the criminals doing the deed, they want to cut off the sources of the problem and that's the trafficking of wildlife products.
It sounds like a great idea to us. Cut off the black market money for rhino horn and other products and it doesn't make sense to poach any more. At the very least, they could make it harder. Right now, the WWF is working on campaigns in three of the top consumers of poaching animal goods. China, Thailand and Vietnam are three of the biggest offenders.
The WWF's initiative is doing social marketing campaigns right now to spread awareness on how damaging the black markets for ivory, rhino horn and sea turtle products are. They're calling this their "Stop the buying objective." We must admit, we like it. Cut down on the demand and there is less incentive for the poachers who do it for the money.
Obviously, this is a long-term project, but it's also just one phase of what WWF is doing. They've also been pushing the United Nations and other world-wide organizations to cut off illegal wildlife trade at the sources and to fight the corruption that often helps worsen the problem.
This will probably not eliminate poaching for the black market, but it should make a significant dent in it. It's just unfortunate that most poaching in the U.S. takes place out of personal greed. There isn't really an alternative way to tackle our problems like this.
We need to police our own better
The only other way we can see to really stop poaching is for hunters to start policing their own better. I hear plenty of second and third hand stories of people who claim another person is using their wife, son and daughter's tags to take well over their bag limit every season.
If that's the case, why aren't you turning them in? They're just going to keep doing it until they're caught. We understand that something like this can be hard, especially if it's a relative, but that's what anonymous tip lines are for.
Now, I'm not saying to become an "internet game warden" scrutinizing photos of people's harvests online and then reporting them because you think you see violations. No one likes that. But keep an eye open when out and about talking to local people in your community.
If someone you know is poaching, report them! Remember, they're stealing natural resources from everyone.
If you see someone taking an extra salmon out of your local river, don't be afraid to drop a tip to law enforcement. Or if you find evidence of someone shooting deer from the road. Maybe you get a trail camera photo of a trespasser. Pass it on to law enforcement!
You never know what cases the local conservation officers are working on. They may be looking for one key piece of evidence to crack a case and it could be something you notice while afield.
Also, don't be afraid to self-report if you make a mistake. Maybe you misidentified a duck or shot a buck that has antlers that aren't quite legal. Don't try to hide it. Be up front with the game warden on it. They understand that things happen sometimes.
If you're honest, you'll often walk away with nothing more than a warning and bruised ego. Most wardens will tell you, people get into the most trouble when they try to hide these mistakes!
We'll probably never eliminate poaching completely
As a final thought, let's also teach a little more respect for our wildlife to children. I feel like too many poachers just don't respect the animals they are stealing from the rest of us. They don't appreciate them for what they are. Maybe they weren't raised right. Maybe they're just that cold and selfish. But we need to teach better appreciation for the wildlife resources we all share and enjoy.
Let's hope that more governmental agencies take steps to stop poaching problems at the source. One of the best ways to support law enforcement efforts is simply to buy more hunting licenses. These agencies need all the funding they can get. Let's help them out.
Poaching will never be eliminated completely. That's just human nature. People do dumb, selfish things all the time. But we can take actions to eliminate or reduce this behavior if we start right now.
Let's all work together on the problem together. United we stand. Divided we fall. It's as simple as that.