As the fourth most common “black market” industry in the world held at such a staggering monetary value, to many this booming market seems near unstoppable, and often attempts to oppose its progression may seem too futile or overly optimistic (Williams). Indeed, an extremely large portion of the funding for these activities come from sources and motivations that are extremely nuanced and difficult to overrule. Specifically, many animal body parts in the illegal wildlife trade are used for religious or cultural purposes.
For example, in the Philippines, elephant or rhino ivory is often carved into figures of saints or Jesus (Williams). Similarly, uses for pangolin (a small African mammal closely resembling an anteater) body parts, but especially scales, range all the way from African nations, especially Sierra Leone, to China (Boakye & Evgeny). In fact, about 22 pangolin body parts are regularly prescribed in both rural and urban areas of Africa to heal 59 diseases with their believed magical properties (Boakye).
Additionally, many indigenous people see poaching as one of their most essential duties, especially the Maasai. In this culture, one must kill a lion in order to be deemed a man and a warrior. So, in taking away poaching, it can be argued that people are disrespecting Afrian cultures, and other global cultures, themselves, and discriminating against their beliefs.
Although at face value it may seem that the people behind the extinction of precious African species are those who use their body parts for cultural reasons, many experts would argue another group entirely is responsible for propelling this issue: Western conservationists (Williams). Overall, it is believed that the approaches of Western NGOs are too stringent. Specifically, many times, these groups have simply cut off all legal wildlife poaching without a slow progression to making this action illegal. The result of this course of action is often a negative one for African people. Specifically, it leaves the Africans with the work of dealing with a much more dangerous market now that it is illegal, putting many lives at risk and arguably strengthening the force of poaching. Furthermore, taking away African poaching entirely is an extremely nuanced endeavor as it mainly would affect indigenous populations or people of indigenous descent. Indigenous people, such as the Maasai in Africa, are already extremely marginalized by their governments, meaning that Westerners attempting to end the industry would most likely cause extremely dangerous geopolitical tension.
Most experts who have looked thoughtfully into the predicament of Sub-Saharan poaching and taken a respectful perspective while trying to come up with a solution have decided that community engagement is the best way of addressing and ending the power of this industry. Afterall, the people who have to deal with the cost, the preservation of initiatives, and the danger, are true Africans. And the best guarantee that a new generation will rise up to take the handle on conservation later is by passing the responsibility onto Africans themselves. A researcher at Columbia University said that it is extremely important for native to take charge of these missions since they are the ones who must deal with the repercussions or successes (Williams). Additionally, upon discussing the deep-rooted importance of animal parts and their use in traditional medicine, researcher Maxwell K. Baokye states, “animals have been documented as a source of medicine throughout human history” (Boakye). Though simple and straight-forward, this fact is extremely important to recognize. There is no viable way to eliminate poaching completely and quickly. It must be a gradual and patient process which respects African people and their unfaltering attachment to this industry.
Even many highly regarded African experts agree. In fact, a researcher, Okoro Paul Mmahi, at a prominent university in Nigeria argued the same opinion, saying that it is important to acknowledge the perspectives of the poachers and fully investigate their livelihoods before making any plans. Specifically, while describing his case study, Mmahi said, “This study interrogated how enforcement of laws against criminalized acts could be frustrated through adoption of schemes to evade arrest and prosecution, if a cultural group defines such criminalization as an incursion on their cultural heritage.” This, therefore, bolsters the case that Africans themselves are the ones who should be making decisions on conservation, since many of them know poachers, understand their livelihoods better, and know how to protect the economy while protecting wildlife (Mmahi).
A photo I took while visiting a Maasai boma
Despite the extremely thorough and detailed arguments made by experts mentioned above who argue for more autonomy in Africa over their conservation plans, many Western NGOs have time and time again displayed patterns of refusal to acknowledge these opinions at all. In fact, one of the most tense agreements created on the subject of Sub-Saharan wildlife protection was a ban in 1989 upon all wildlife trade in Africa, organized by WWF, CITE, and AWF, making it completely illegal. Although this may seem like a plan for success, it largely ignores the voices of African people. This type of conservation has a name, “strict protectionism,” or sometimes jokingly called “Western conservation” (Williams). It is called Western conservation for one essential reason, the policy is made by western NGOs who want a quick fix, one where they can research very little, make a decision, and promptly leave the rest to the Africans themselves. This policy has only worsened the issue, making it more expensive, difficult, and dangerous to obtain wild species, thus pushing the issue even farther. Many African nations, such as Tanzania and Kenya, have made their own well-orchestrated plans to address the issue in a more sustainable way, but these groups have ignored their many requests. This behavior leaves Africans feeling extremely overlooked, causing only even more tension and resentment among poachers, fuelling the poaching industry in backlash (Williams).
To be more specific about the West’s extremely polarizing opinions in the case of poaching, it is important to mention the incidence of Western celebration when a poacher in Kruger National Park died by trampling by an elephant. Turner brought up the important point that most poachers are not the ones reaping profits, they are extremely poor and often, poaching is the only thing that can make them enough money to get by. In other cases, poachers could be indigenous herders or farmers who always have their only main source of livelihood destroyed by wildlife. As such, they kill to protect their families. However when this poacher died, Westerners actually celebrated on social media, calling the man a monster, a man who possibly had a family he was desperate to take care of. So desperate in fact, that he would put himself in enough danger to try and kill an elephant (Turner).
Celina Chien, intersectional wildlife conservationist and photojournalist, has spent a large portion of her life researching the wildlife trade industry, and possesses a similar opinion on the issue. Since her time as a seventeen year old growing up in China, she has been investigating illegal wildlife markets firsthand, taking exposé photographs in order to help end this injustice against animals. Now as an adult, she uses her skills and background to do the same for NGOs fighting against poaching of endangered species. Oftentimes, she will pose as a customer looking for species for her Chinese employer, using this as a cover since China is one of the largest monetary supporters of the wildlife trade. Using a button camera on her coat to take photos, videos, and record audio, she gathers information on these markets and searches for species.
Although Celina has a robust background in fighting the illegal wildlife trade globally, she still feels responsibility to keep poachers in mind while completing her work, and works hard to think through their perspective while thinking of approaches that can support conservation while also supporting people. One of the main reasons Celina sympathizes so strongly with these individuals is their background, which many Western conservationists chose to overlook. Specifically, she mentions that poachers are usually extremely desperate and poor people, and even when they poach, they are regularly cheated out of their money and paid the very least out of all individuals involved in the wildlife trade. She goes on to say, “It’s usually really gruesome, it’s usually really dangerous because the people who are doing it are often putting their lives on the line and putting a lot on the line. The poachers are the ones that have the most to lose when you think about it” (Chien).
When asked about her opinion on how to best eliminate poaching while also attempting to help poachers achieve better wellbeing, Celina says:
“I think it’s all about providing alternative livelihoods for these people. So a lot of conservation in the past, I would say up until now and I’m sure there are still conservation projects ongoing that have slightly archaic perspectives of conservation where it’s almost like a new form of colonialism. A bunch of white scientists and campaigners go to countries in the global South. They go to countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, they go to countries in Southeast Asia or South America and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I cannot believe you’re letting these people cut down all your forests. This is not the way you’re supposed to be doing it.’ When, if you think about it, in Europe and in the US, we already did that. We already cut all of our forests down, we already eliminated or annihilated a lot of the biodiversity that we had in our own continents. And we profited off of it economically. And now that it’s another country’s turn to join industrialization and globalization and become a ‘developed’ country [I don’t love that word], it’s like , ‘Oh no, no you can’t do what we did. That’s not allowed, you’re not allowed to prosper. You’ve got the rhinos!’ There’s not a central perspective of their human lives” (Chien).
Celina, and other researchers included, have stood against this Western “strict protectionist” conservationism and begun to argue for policies which have a more ground perspective focusing on African people. In fact, through thorough development and planning, many organizations or governments have already come up with plans which would benefit native society as well as wildlife protection goals. Moreover, it can be concurred in general by most experts globally that the most viable option to create and sustain conservation is my taking a holistic approach, intersecting between needs for the people and needs for the animals.
Many have acknowledged that the issue of Sub-Saharan poaching is one that cannot be easily resolved. This epidemic is fuelled by a perfect storm of highly valued and widespread cultural traditions, governments hesitant to disrespect these cultures, rampant poverty, and counterproductive involvement of Western NGOs. Many experts have acknowledged how nuanced the struggles of conservation are, and thus, how thoughtful and persistent plans for change must be. Therefore, the only ways to address poaching are by creating thorough, self-sustaining plans that can exist within Sub-Saharan Africa itself.
Many specialists in the issue of poaching have highlighted the fundamental need for conservation efforts against poaching in Sub-Saharan Africa to be organized, run, and sustained by African people themselves. Specifically, one of the best ways to ensure that Africans, for generations to come, are able to handle poaching independently is by creating a conservation elementary school education system. As lion conservation expert Moreangels Mbizah says, it is essential that local communities become more involved in the mission of preserving wild species. Without direct involvement from the community, there will be no way for the mission of conservation to sustain itself (Mbizah). Plenty of Western organizations may seem passionate and even dedicated to eradicating poaching, but they have no innate motivation to create a plan and sustain it. On the other hand, African people are the ones who must live with the results of either success or failure from conservation missions. Consequently, it should be they who carry the responsibility of preserving their land. If the plans for conservation in Sub-Saharan Africa fail, the poaching industry will grow and become even more dangerous. In the past, it has been shown that even with stringent laws outlawing poaching, the industry thrives, even becoming more threatening for citizens of Sub-Saharan nations (Williams). Thus, Africans will be left with rampant crime and violence from the growth of poaching if missions fail, whereas Westerners would remain unaffected. Westerners have nothing to lose, whereas Africans have everything to lose. So it is only logical that they be the ones in charge of their region’s fate.
On the other hand, by creating an education system in elementary schools to help raise up a generation aware, empathetic, and passionate about preserving wildlife, the situation would be much more stable. Specifically, it would create tension for poachers, meaning that the younger generation would not only be less likely to become poachers, but would also become more likely to work in the field of conservation, actively combating poaching. Additionally, the main force in conservation would be more action-oriented and incentivise to effect real change since they must live with the consequences economically and environmentally (Mbizah).
Although it is best for Afrians to take the main lead on the conservation mission in their own nations, that does not conclude by any means that Western NGOs should have absolutely no involvement in Sub-Saharan African conservation. However, if these organizations do become involved in plans protecting Africa’s wild species, it is essential that they actively commit to hire Africans as their main workforce. For example, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, or IFAW, is an organization based in the West which makes a large part of their mission dedicated to hiring Maasai indigenous people to become rangers in their parks (Price). The pros of this approach are boundless, including the facts that this provides African people with education, employment, emotional connection to the mission, respect for their culture despite ending the tradition of unsustainable hunting, and prevention of these people becoming poachers. Besides the benefits for the mission of conservation, this plan also helps create more equitable environments in Africa. For example, through this program, many women have received employment, which they had not even considered beforehand.
Additionally, one of the most important and complex plans toward eliminating poaching is a proposal made by the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments to Western-based organizations such as CITES, WWF, and AWF to slowly sell off collected poached ivory in small quantities for the profit of conservation missions. This plan is thorough and focuses on effects over a long period of time, showing yet another example of how Africans themselves are willing to invest into the essential work of conservation whereas some Western organizations want quick and ineffective systems (Williams). Although the plan made by Tanzania and Kenya were denied aid by CITES, WWF, and AWF, thus made near impossible, it would create some of the most effective results. Specifically, these governments have developed a large inventory of collected ivory from poaching over the years. Despite the fact that these goods still hold high monetary value, they are being kept stored away in warehouses. Yet the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments recognized that these products hold the potential to be sold off by the government itself in order to raise funds for conservation while also creating market competition with poached ivory. Since this ivory was collected by the government and would be sold by the government, it would not be dangerous to sell, nor would it require a secretive selling process. Consequently, the government-distributed ivory would cost less than currently-poached ivory, driving the profits and viability of the poached ivory industry lower. While devaluing poached ivory, the governments would also raise funds specifically for conservation missions within Sub-Saharan Africa, helping native organizations to gain new technologies, tools, facilities, employment, etc. in order to strengthen the resistance to poaching. This plan to weaken the poaching industry, coupled with the fact that the governments would sell the ivory in extremely low amounts over many years, would create a plan lasting long enough to remain effective.
If implemented across Sub-Saharan African governments, selling not only ivory, but also other collected animal body parts, this plan would have the potential to seriously damage the poaching industry. Although the effects would take place slowly, it would create evident change, sustaining itself long enough to actually bring about results.
Westerners must open their mind to see poachers as human, and the West must relinquish some control over the Sub-Saharan African poaching industry. Instead, it should be up to Africans to decide how to handle the issue, as it is they who will be affected economically and know how to help their people. So far, some of the most effective plans and studies show that the best solution would be to sell captured products slowly, helping kill the market less abruptly to prevent the development of a stronger and more dangerous illegal market. Additionally, Africans should focus on community-based work, recruiting indigenous people, especially poachers, women, children educated about conservation in schools, and researchers to take charge. This way, the people who will be affected by the change will truly care about it and guarantee a generation who will take effective action.
Let’s Hear From You!
In the comments below, feel free to respond to any of the following questions:
- What is species in your home country or local area that is endangered? What is the cause of the endangerment of this species and do you know what responses are being made by the government or NGO’s?
- Do you believe that preserving the culturally historical use of animal parts for traditional medicine takes precedence over wildlife conservation? Do you think the opposite? Or do you think there is a way to strike a balance? Please elaborate upon your opinion.
- What is one approach you would support to reducing the ivory or pangolin trade? Would you try to keep in mind the wellbeing of the native people, whether they are poachers or not? Or would you prioritize the wildlife crisis only?