Continued Poaching Will Result in the Degradation of Fragile Ecosystems

Poaching, especially in parts of the developing world, is as serious and prevalent an issue today as it was only twenty years ago. Despite steps to curb the poaching of exotic and endangered species, such as the 1990 CITES-led international ban on ivory, many countries are still faced with a growing prevalence of the issue within their national parks and reserves. This was recently exemplified by the law passed this month in Western India that allows forest guards to shoot and kill suspected poachers on site and not face any criminal charges or human rights violations.

Poaching is not strictly defined as the illegal culling of endangered or protected species. Poaching also includes the shooting, trapping, or taking of game or fish from private property or from a place where such practices are specifically reserved or forbidden. Taken in this context, as hunting out of season or without a permit is also considered poaching, many hunters are often unaware of the legal designation of their activity.


There are three motivations for poaching; food, cultural and economic. When food is scarce, traditional hunters have been known to poach protected species in order to eat. During the initial post-Soviet era in Russia, poaching was widespread due to the starvation and environmental cutbacks that occurred in many rural areas of the country. The cutbacks allowed criminal organizations to operate freely and poach tiger, bear and deer both as a source of food, and to be sold on the black market.

Now, poaching occurs primarily for economic and cultural reasons. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports that illegal wildlife trade is driven by high profit margins. The two motivators often intersect as many animals are poached for economic reasons that are driven by cultural demand. For example, India’s declining tiger population is influenced by the fact that in some Asian countries, such as China, consumption of tiger penis is believed to increase virility. The WWF reports that an increase in demand for rhinoceros horn on the black market is due to a belief held by some in Vietnam that rhino horn can cure cancer.

Often, these products are easily purchased at local markets and are on display to potential buyers. The WWF also cites weak judicial systems and “toothless” laws, corruption and light sentencing as being reasons why, despite laws that make poaching illegal, it continues to remain a fruitful economic option for some.

In an interview this past month with the Globe and Mail, Divyabhanusinh Chavda, head of the World Wildlife Fund in India, said of the widespread poaching in India, “Those poachers have lost all fear. They just go in and poach what they want because the risks are low.”

Thus, motivations behind poaching and the illegal trade in wildlife are often complex and can include one or more singular motivation.

Effects of poaching on ecosystems

The loss of endangered species that poaching contributes to has a significant impact on the ecosystems in which these animals live. In the event of complete species extinction, these effects pose the threat of being highly detrimental and irreversible.

According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), tigers are listed as being in Appendices I, meaning that they are in imminent danger of extinction. The WWF estimates that there are less than 3200 tigers left in the wild globally.

Tigers are an apex predator, which means that within their ecosystem, they occupy the top of the food chain. Tigers therefore help to keep the local prey populations under control, which subsequently keeps the entire ecosystem balanced because predatorily-controlled populations of prey animals help to maintain healthy levels of flora. The loss of tigers within their natural habitat will therefore have complex consequences for their ecosystem, resulting in the large-scale growth of prey animal populations. The effects of the resulting greater numbers of prey animals, mainly herbivores, influences the rest of the food chain and threatens to exhaust the food supply. A prime example of a tiger species that has been hunted to extinction is the Bali Tiger in Indonesia during the Dutch colonial period of the 1930s.

This phenomenon is not unique to tigers. The loss of an apex predator in any environment poses similar environmental threats.

Amanda Nickson, Director of the WWF International Species Programme says that, “Tigers are a symbol of what is happening to many species across the globe, and demonstrate the urgent need for the world to come up with the political will, policies, resources and incentives to maintain a living and diverse planet.”

Prime examples of ecosystems that are on the verge of collapse due to poaching and the illegal trade of wildlife include marine habitats. The cycle begins with the overfishing of certain fish populations, such as tuna, marlin, cod and shark, the demand for the later resulting in particularly high returns for the fishermen. In many cases, these species are not fished in sustainable ways. Popular unsustainable methods include the process of trawling or dragging, which catches more than the intended species of fish as nets are dragged either along the sea floor or mid-water. In the case of sharks, they are caught and harvested primarily for their fins, only to be thrown back into the ocean once the fins have been removed. Trawling usually results in by-catches, which occur when unintended animals caught in nets, often to be sold as unreported catches for an additional and unmonitored profit.

Particularly evident in the overfishing of sharks, the loss of an apex predator results in the overpopulation of smaller fish. Shark populations are especially vulnerable to overfishing because sharks take longer to reach sexual maturity and produce less offspring than other species of fish. Once the number of sharks in certain regions have been diminished enough to significantly minimize their presence, the populations of their prey dramatically increase, as can be observed by rapidly increasing populations of skates and rays, which in turn eventually exhaust much of their own food supply, resulting in the degradation of their ecosystem. A Dalhousie University study led by fisheries biologist Ransom Myers has noted that the impact of the current overpopulation of skates and rays where sharks are being overfished is resulting in the decline of shellfish populations. Fishermen in these regions, particularly on the Atlantic Coast of the United States, are noticing a steep decline in shellfish numbers, upon whom their livelihoods depend.

Since coral reefs and other marine ecosystems are known to be some of the most diverse in the world, bearing far more delicate and complex food chains than those on land, the loss of one or two species has immediate and adverse effects on the entire ecosystem. Ultimately, as there is insufficient food to sustain the under-controlled and increasing population of the apex predator’s prey, these smaller fish also face considerable instability within their ecosystem.

A recent study conducted by Austin J. Gallagher and Dr. Neil Hammershlag of the R. J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program at the University of Miami offers insight into the problem of overfishing sharks and the effects on ecotourism, a sector which many developing nations rely on. According to their study, a single reef shark will net approximately $73.00 a day in ecotourism, while the same reef shark will net a fisherman only about $50.00 one time for the sale of its fins.

A further effect of illegal poaching practices, as reported by the WWF, is observed when illegal wildlife buyers and traders purposely introduce invasive species to certain regions in order to make poaching them easier. A prime example of this is the introduction of the European red fox to Australia in the late 1800s for the purposes of recreational hunting. The introduction of invasive species into local habitats has disruptive effects similar to those of poaching or overfishing. The invasive species may either prey upon or compete with local species, posing a major threat to the balance of the ecosystem. In the case of the introduction of the red fox to Australia, it has competed with other local predators for food, disrupting the balance; and now poses major management problems for the Australian government.

It is also important to note that because ecosystems are so interconnected, the loss of prey animals within a food chain will eventually have the same effects as the loss of an apex predator will have. Poaching of deer for food, and elephants, rhinoceros and hippos for their ivory eventually produces adverse effects within their respective ecosystems, as all are prey animals.

Current initiatives

Despite the widespread prevalence of poaching, there are initiatives in place that are working towards the goal of controlling the practice. Individual countries are passing laws and regulating the activities going on within their national parks and nature reserves.

The WWF identifies a number of governments that are cooperating with the global ivory ban. In 1990, when the ban was first implemented, the Kenyan government destroyed its ivory stockpile as an act of good faith and has since cooperated with a number of NGOs to work towards saving its elephant and rhinoceros populations from poachers by cracking down on poaching and constructing wildlife reserves. The Thai government is also attempting to curb the illegal trade of ivory, seizing over 765 kilos of the product from inspections at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport in 2010 alone.

In November of 2010, Russia hosted the International Tiger Conservation Forum, the first conservation conference of its kind. The conference brought together the thirteen countries that maintain tiger populations to create discussion on the issue, bridge differences and brainstorm ideas to stop the illegal poaching and trade of the animal. The conference concluded with countries pledging approximately $330 million dollars towards the strengthening of reserves, halting poachers and providing financial incentives to countries to help maintain healthy, thriving tiger populations.

However, despite the pledges for aid, upon the conclusion of the forum, the head of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), Debbie Banks, was quoted as saying, “None of us is jumping for joy and saying that the nut is cracked. It’ll be what happens when leaders go home that makes a difference. Will they engage with the public? Will they call a meeting of police and customs to say wildlife is a priority and personnel will be assigned to it?”

Since the International Tiger Conservation Forum, the EIA has engaged in a number of global initiatives to educate populations that live in fragile ecosystems prone to poaching. Their goal is to provide information regarding the vulnerability of ecosystems and what will happen if poaching continues unchecked. Furthermore, these programs also seek to educate people about how they can help stop poaching. This includes simple action, such as refusing to purchase illegal wildlife parts. Their claim is that if the demand disappears, there will be no incentive to poach.

Legislation to control the poaching of sharks has been less successful than tiger-related legislation as there is less dialogue concerning it. Tigers are a beloved animal, while sharks are often feared. In terms of international law, shark finning is illegal internationally as per the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, however it is the responsibility of individual countries to enforce marine law along their coastlines. The United Nations Code hinges on the fact that in most cases, only the shark fins are retained, and the majority of the carcass is thrown back into the sea, resulting in gross waste. The Code stipulates that there must be as little waste as possible. Some countries, such as the United States, Canada, Taiwan and Australia stipulate that fisherman must bring back the entire shark with the fins attached, otherwise shark fishing is illegal. The Republic of Palau has also banned shark finning and has established the world’s first shark sanctuary in which it is illegal to fish for any shark species.

The future

Poaching and the illegal trade of wildlife will always have consequences for the environment. Multiple NGOs such as CITES, WWF and TRAFFIC (Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network) and NGOs that advocate for specific species of animals all cite the most important effort to end poaching as being education. This includes both the education of local populations as well as that of tourists in order to ensure their awareness of the goods they are buying, and how their purchasing power will affect the surrounding environment. A prime example of education of local and tourist populations can be seen in recent regional bans on the sale of shark fin products in an effort to educate people about how these products are harvested. In Canada, cities within the Greater Toronto Area, such as Toronto, Brantford and Mississauga have all banned shark fin products and the States of Hawaii, California and Oregon have also followed suit in the United States.

These NGOs are also calling on individual governments to increase funding for national reserves and wildlife parks so that they can employ more rangers to track the patterns of poachers. In addition, they are calling for harder legal sanctions on poachers, such as increased monetary fines and longer jail sentences in order deter further poaching. So far, the only country to take drastic action against poachers has been India. Before Western India passed a law this past month that will allow forest guards to shoot and kill poachers on site, the law was relied on in parts of Eastern India successfully.

It is important to note that poaching is not just an issue that the developing world faces. States within the US have also been passing tougher anti-poaching legislation. This past March, Pennsylvania passed House Bill 1859 in order to combat out of season poaching, without permits or exceeding permits. The legislation allows for tougher sentences on poachers who are caught with more bounty than permitted or caught hunting out of season; even for first time offenders.

Poaching is a serious issue, one that cannot be diminished overnight. It will require cooperative efforts internationally, tougher legal sanctions on perpetrators and the education of the public on the effects that poaching has on the health of ecosystems. The health of the earth’s ecosystems is paramount, as so much depends on them, from healthy economies that include ecotourism and industry all the way to general human welfare. Environments will continue to be degraded through poaching and illegal wildlife trade though, unless action is taken now. Whether this will happen, remains to be seen.