Can You Wage a War on Poaching?

Why drones and night-vision goggles can't stop the illegal wildlife trade
A protester outside the Chinese embassy in Pretoria, South Africa (Stringer/Reuters)
During this week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the presidents of four African countries, all embroiled in efforts to combat poaching, drew up a high-tech wishlist for the United States. Namibia, which deployed army units in July to defend its endangered black rhino population, requested a light attack helicopter to patrol the country’s vast desert terrain. Tanzania, which is on pace to lose the majority of its 60,000 elephants by 2020, asked for night-vision goggles to pursue insurgent poachers, who generally operate at night, without flashlights, when the moon is full. Togo, a country which has fewer than 65 elephants of its own but which recently confiscated more than 2 tons of elephant ivory being shipped from one of its ports, asked for infrared scanners to track down contraband.

But Ali Bongo Ondimba, the president of Gabon—a country that has already received training from U.S. Marines to protect its endangered forest elephant population—took a different tack. Instead of simply requesting military hardware, he suggested that his fellow leaders were attacking the wrong target.

“Let’s kill the market,” Ondimba said, “then we’ll save the animals.”

The market Ondimba is referring to lies largely in China—the figurative elephant-in-the-room for many of this week’s summit discussions, some of which were designed, in part, to encourage African nations to seek U.S. investment over Chinese alternatives.

When it comes to poaching, the Chinese market is an illegal one. China, with Vietnam not far behind, is the world’s largest purchaser of illegal elephant ivory and rhino horns. A surging middle class in the country has stoked demand for rhino horn in particular, which, when ground into powder and consumed, is believed to be a luxury remedy for cancer, hangovers, sexual impotence, and a host of other ailments. A kilogram of rhino-horn powder is now worth an estimated $60,000; more than its weight in cocaine, gold, or platinum. One estimate pegs the value of the wholesale rhino-horn trade at $180 million.

This market demand has been disastrous for African wildlife conservations. The most dramatic effects are evident in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, which, at the end of last year, had seen a 5,000-percent increase in rhino poaching since 2006, according to the country’s Department of Environmental Affairs.

All of which raises the question: If the problem is primarily one of economic incentives from a foreign market, why are African leaders in Washington seeking military-grade weaponry as a solution?

Part of the answer stems from the way in which the challenge is being framed in the United States. The Obama administration, which announced a presidential taskforce on wildlife trafficking last summer, has often echoed the language of the War on Terror in its public statements on the subject, asserting in the most recent White House fact sheet that “wildlife trafficking undermines security across nations.” Born Free USA, an American conservation group, has reported that U.S.-designated terrorist groups such as Somalia’s al-Shabab and Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army reap profits from the illegal wildlife trade. Johan Bergenas, a researcher at the Stimson Center, a D.C.-based think tank, has been a particularly vocal advocate for combating a “new threat in the terrorist hotbed of Africa.” He urges conservation groups to “combat poaching, using new and inexpensive technologies to detect and deter terrorist activities and traffickers,” adding, “Drones, satellite imagery, tracking devices and other high-tech tools could transform the fight to save elephants and rhinos, cheaply and effectively starving terrorists of the easy money they gain from wildlife crimes.”

Bergenas’s views have found an audience with some wildlife conservation groups, which are now attempting to reframe their work in terms of American “wars” on terror and drugs. As Susan Lieberman, an executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, a U.S. conservation group, told AFKInsider, an African business newspaper, “poaching is up there with drug smuggling and arms smuggling and it needs to be addressed the same way, and the same way isn’t involving wildlife people, it’s involving people who know how to do intelligence gathering and enforcement and prosecutions.”

Kenyan Wildlife Service officials lay out rhino horns and illegal firearms confiscated from a poaching bust in Nairobi. (Noor Khamis/Reuters)

Responding to the idea that conservation groups should model themselves after the DEA or CIA, animal-rights organizations such as the WWF have taken dramatic measures to fight poaching. Last year, the organization received $5 million from Google to develop Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, equipped with thermal-sensing cameras to detect nighttime poaching raids in South Africa. African corporations have also donated Seeker II and Seeker Seabird drones to Kruger Park.

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Zach Goldhammer is an editorial fellow with The Atlantic​.

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