By Alexis Coopersmith
Last month, 300 elephants and countless other animals were found dead from cyanide poisoning in Zimbabwe’s largest national park, their tusks hacked off and their bodies left to deteriorate. Poachers laced water wells in Hwange National Park with the cyanide, inciting a devastating chain effect. Animals who eat the carcasses of the poisoned animals will die, and any animal that eats that dead animal will also perish due to the extreme potency of cyanide.
“What has transpired in Hwange National Park to our elephants and other wildlife species is synonymous to the use and deployment of arms of mass destruction — chemical and biological warfare against our wildlife heritage,” said Majorr Mahlangu, chief administration officer of Mbada Diamonds. Mahlangu donated patrol vehicles to Zimbabwe’s national park systems, representing a new effort on behalf of private companies in the fight against poaching.
This massacre of African wildlife along with the recent declaration of the extinction of the western black rhinoceros are bringing the endemic practice of poaching to the forefront of international concern. The effects of poaching are devastating, as ecosystems are destroyed throughout Africa while those who participate in illegal poaching are highly rewarded for their contributions to the increasing international market for ivory and rhino horns. The horns of rhinos are in highest demand in Asia, where one pound of rhino horn powder sells for over $30,000, “making it more valuable than gold and cocaine,” according to the International Conservation Caucus Foundation. The high profits that can be made combined with weak enforcement efforts throughout African nations make illegal poaching an increasingly lucrative business.
Al-Shabaab in Somalia, the perpetrators of the recent Westgate mall massacre in Kenya, makes up to 40 percent of its income through the trafficking of ivory and rhino horns into Asia. Other terrorist organizations such as the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and the Janjaweed in Sudan are also involved in the poaching business. Even just a few tusks or horns can fund a terrorist attack. The prospect of the rise of poaching funded terrorist groups is of serious concern to nations all over the world.
The international community has responded to the poaching crisis by amplifying its efforts to combat poachers. The Kenya Wildlife Service recently announced a plan to place microchips in the horn of every rhinoceros in Kenya so that rhinos can be tracked alongside poachers and traffickers of the horns. This sophisticated approach is expected to hinder widespread attempts to traffic illegal goods by providing information on the routes by which horns are smuggled. The use of microchips is a promising means by which nations throughout Africa can deter poachers and increase prosecution, bringing an end to the impunity that encourages so many to enter the business.
In South Africa, the Rhino Rescue Project has been infusing ectoparasiticides, a substance used to deter ticks in captive rhinos, and dye into the horns of rhinos so that they are indigestible. Horn powder is ingested in many Asian nations as a remedy for cancer and other ailments, so the infusion of these substances destroys the value of the horn by making its consumption toxic, though not lethal, to humans while having no detrimental effect on the animal.
In an effort to bring awareness to the urgent security issue that poaching presents, the United States destroyed six tons of ivory that had been illegally brought into the country. The Obama administration intended to demonstrate the declining appeal of ivory and has encouraged other nations do the same with their illegal animal products. The Philippines, Kenya and Gabon have destroyed their stockpiles as well. Over the summer, the United States established the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking to encourage other governments to strengthen their policing efforts in bringing poachers and traffickers to justice. Hilary Clinton just recently announced an $80 million plan to work with conservation groups and African governments in educating consumers on the gravity of illegal animal products in an attempt to reduce international demand and in preventing poaching throughout the continent.
Those engaged in poaching are often well trained and highly armed, and militarized efforts are often employed in the pursuit of illegal hunters. African governments and poachers are said to be competing in an arms race as the battle for wildlife becomes increasingly advanced. Kenya is utilizing drones to provide aerial footage of national parks to track poachers. The sound of the drones, however, disturbs the elephants and the drones are now being used to scare herds away from danger.
“Drones are basically the future of conservation. A drone can do what 50 rangers can do,” said James Hardy, a fourth-generation Kenyan and manager of the Mara North Conservancy. “It’s going to reach a point where drones are on the forefront of poaching. At nighttime we could use it to pick up heat signatures of poachers, maybe a dead elephant if we’re quick enough.”
In addition to drones, armed guards, intelligence analysts, planes, helicopters and the dispatch of military units to national parks are utilized in the war on poaching throughout the African continent. Despite the massive militarized effort to halt poaching in recent years, illegal hunting continues to proliferate. Rates of slaughtered elephants and rhinos increase each year. “South Africa is on track to lose 900 to 1,000 rhinos to poachers in 2013, smashing last year’s macabre record of 668,” according to Adam Welz of Environment 360.
Aside from the sophisticated technology employed in the war on poaching, there have been much fewer efforts to address the institutions that allow for such levels of illegal hunting to continue. African nations’ judicial systems continue to allow wildlife crime to go unpunished. Punishment often consists of small fees that hold no weight in deterring criminals that can quickly make thousands of dollars off of a single animal. Stronger policing and more intensive investigations of poachers must take place not only in Africa, but also in nations such as the United States and China where most of the demand for the products exists.
While the world fails to address the multifaceted nature of the struggle to save African wildlife, more and more rhinos and elephants are slaughtered every day. The new face of poaching, where cyanide and advanced weaponry allow for the mass killing of African wildlife at an ever-increasing rate, will undoubtedly bring these animals to extinction if the international community cannot adequately address the multidimensional nature of the war on poaching, and do so quickly.
Photo by Nonprofit Organizations