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.

But as Patrick Tucker reported at Defense One, all these airborne bells-and-whistles, including the new models that WWF are developing, might not do much to actually stop poaching on the ground. The main bulwark against poaching remains rangers, many of whom are poorly compensated and overworked.

If the real enemy is market incentives outside Africa, the logical step would be to cut off the source of those incentives. To some extent, the United States is trying to do this—but again, it’s basing its model off the War on Drugs. Last year, Washington, “taking a page from the battle against international drug cartels,” in the words of The New York Times, offered a $1-million reward for information on Vixay Keosavang, a Laotian man who has been called the “Pablo Escobar of wildlife trafficking.” Vixay is the head of the Xaysavang Network, which allegedly, in one incident, had Thai prostitutes pose as legal hunters to bring rhino horn into the East Asian market. Vixay is also one of the main subjects of the book-length investigation Killing for Profit: Exposing the Illegal Rhino Horn Trade, a grisly report by the journalist Julian Rademeyer.

Capturing Vixay would no doubt strike a blow against the illegal trade. But ultimately, Vixay is just the facilitator of a demand. Taking him out would do no more to stop the flow of rhino horn into East Asia than killing Pablo Escobar did to stop the flow of cocaine into the U.S.

So if a war on poaching is not the solution, what is?

One possible solution, which was not discussed at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, is legalization. In 2013, South Africa’s Environmental Minister Edna Molewa suggested that the country could reduce black-market demand for poaching by producing legally harvested rhino horns. Others, including investment analyst Michael Eustace and sustainability economist Michael 't' Sas-Rolfes, have also championed the approach. The plan would involve the non-lethal removal of rhino horns, which rhinos have the capacity to regrow. Eustace has estimated that roughly 1,200 horns per year could be sustainably obtained from live rhinos, while 400 additional horns could be collected from rhinos who die of natural causes. The collective output from these "harvests" would be enough to squash the illegal market.

There is no long ideological war being waged against Africa’s charismatic megafauna.

There are several barriers to this plan’s success—the main one being that the legal sale of such products would be difficult to regulate and could potentially expand the market for an illegal trade that would operate in tandem with the legal one. Such an initiative also couldn’t be put into effect until 2016, the date of the next convention on international trade in endangered species, or CITES.

There are also moral objections to sale of legalized rhino horn in much the same way that there are objections to the legal sale of drugs. "I wouldn’t go to sleep at night," writes Will Travers, CEO of the Born Free Foundation, "if I thought I was selling something like that to a Vietnamese family who have scrimped and saved every cent to buy rhino horn for their dying grandmother, who then goes and dies."

Another option would be to focus on education and public-awareness campaigns. This may seem like an obvious point, but rhino horn neither cures cancer nor revives a weak libido. Rhino horn is formed primarily from keratin, the same substance found in human nails. Studies demonstrating the horn’s lack of medicinal value, combined with the threat of economic sanctions, have helped deter rhino-horn production and consumption in countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. (Some rangers in South Africa have gone so far as to inject a non-lethal toxic dye into living rhinos, in an effort to deter consumers from ingesting rhino-horn powder that could make them sick. The dye is also visible to airport scanners.)

These options do not, necessarily, discount a militarized anti-poaching campaign. It may still be the case that South Africa could benefit from drones, Namibia from helicopters, Tanzania from night-vision goggles, and so on. But the wars on drugs and terror are distressingly inaccurate models. There is no long ideological war being waged against Africa’s charismatic megafauna. Nor is there any physical addiction fueling the desire for rhino horn or elephant ivory in East Asia. The fundamental idea keeping this problem alive is the perception that these objects hold value. If that value is stripped away, so too is the problem.

Gabon’s president said it best: kill the market, save the animals.