Poaching – a threat to species

Around 30,000 species go extinct every year. 30,000 species lost the last individual of their own kind, getting wiped off earth. The causes for that are various – our natural environment is having a tough time right now. We are encountering climate change, biodiversity loss, and much more. However, one key factor for extinction is poaching. The illegal hunting and trafficking of animals is the second biggest direct threat to species, right after the destruction of habitat.

Poaching is defined as the illegal hunting or capturing of wild animals or as the hunting and killing of animals on someone else’s land without permission. While the practice of poaching has been around for centuries its meaning has changed over time.
In the Middle Ages, hunting was only permitted to the king and nobles. Even though hunting was not allowed to peasants, many hunted venison like deer to provide for their families.
Today poaching is a term used usually when it comes to hunting protected animals. Those animals are usually protected for status as an endangered species.

While poaching, seen as theft, has been illegal in continental Europe for a longer time, strong enforcement of punishment only started around the 16th century. Due to newer developments of hunting and land ownership rights, law enforcement and punishments were pushed through by nobles. The distribution of rifles in the late 18th century allowed peasants to hunt and therefore poach more easily. Poaching turned into a method to protest nobility and class systems. All over central and western Europe, some violent poachers separated from moderate ones, hunting for sustenance, and got together in gangs.

Poaching in the European area until the 19th century was rather a violation of land ownership rights and did not influence the local biodiversity too much. However, hunting done by European settlers was harmful towards the environment. Not called poaching and seen as ‘legal’ hunting, European settlers would have a huge impact on local biodiversity in colonial areas in North America and Australia. From the 1600s to the 1900s Northern America faced an ’extinction event’, caused by the extensive hunting of bison, prairie dogs, ferrets, foxes, and different kinds of birds done by the European settlers.

Since the 20th century poaching has largely become a business. Mostly exotic and endangered animals are being poached to be sold and kept as pets, as rare animals bring in more money. Other animals are being hunted and slaughtered for the commercial value of selling their body parts. 
While we usually hear about poaching on different continents, there is wildlife trafficking happening in eastern Europe. Locally there is much poaching happening. One victim of this is the Balkan Lynx. The animal, seen as a national symbol in Macedonia, is critically endangered due to illegal hunting with only about 40 individuals left in Macedonia and numbers decreasing. Poaching happens in nearly every country and needs to be paid attention to.

Significant problems for our environment are caused by poaching. As we all know by now, some animals are quite literally poached to extinction. However even in cases less drastic wildlife trafficking impacts the environment. Due to constant hunting of certain animals the poaching itself turns into a factor of unnatural selections, inducing ‘human made evolution’. Hunting of certain individuals because of their traits turns influences the variety of said trait. Ever since the rising of the illegal hunting of elephants for ivory, there has been a significant rise in tuskless elephants. Wildlife trafficking is also dangerous for humans as it provides disease transmission mechanisms. Those diseases can threaten humans but also local animals or livestock.

The causes for poaching are different. An important reason is poverty.
Wildlife trafficking is a way to gain money in countries with a weak social system and infrastructure. Especially countries stricken by war have a high rate of poaching as many people are left without a job and means to support themselves. In those cases, gangs of traffickers hire local hunters, desperate for money. The local hunters receive a small amount of money, while the traffickers grow their illegal businesses. Wildlife trafficking businesses grow fast since there is a global demand for their body parts.
Certain goods such as ivory are seen as a status symbol and a method of investment in multiple countries. The legal ivory market in China, nowadays overflooded by illegal ivory trade, makes it harder to stop the trade of poached goods. Other materials are on demand because of spiritual beliefs and religious purposes. Especially in central and eastern Asia some materials such as ground rhino horn are seen as a spiritual remedy. It’s difficult to stop that trade with poached goods since people who believe in healing powers of a certain good are determined to get it.

Another cause for poaching is the traditional consumption of meat. In most parts of Africa, there has been consumption of bushmeat for centuries, not only does it hold a cultural value, but it also is a cheaper source of protein than domesticated animals. Especially in rural areas, the consumption of bushmeat is still high. Even though most hunting of bushmeat is defined as poaching for disregarding land ownership and hunting rights, the bushmeat hunted this way is usually porcupine, pouched rat or antelopes, and other non-endangered animals.
Poaching generally stays the same problem: People hunting and trafficking animals for their own profit.

Luckily there are organizations working to restrict poaching. Some work on raising awareness and educating the public, others train wildlife guards to protect endangered species. Furthermore, more sanctuaries are to be built. You want to get involved? Research which foundations need your help!

Tamina Schulze

William B. Karesh: Wildlife Trade and Global Disease Emergence
Robert A. Montgomery: Poaching is not one big Thing

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