The Elephant Killing Fields
All across the Earth, animals are being illegally killed or captured every hour of every day as a result of growing criminal activity. Apart from the devastating effect on survival chances for wild populations, the cruel methods of the poachers, and their willingness to kill those who stand in their way, make this a massive problem.
Imagine for a moment you are given the job running a global crime syndicate and can pick your “area of expertise.” What would you choose? If you want the most lucrative field to ply your trade you would need to go for one of the three top earners. They would be smuggling drugs, arms, or humans. But according to a conference held in London this month, the United for Wildlife symposium, organized crime is increasingly choosing the illegal trade in wildlife as a way to make money. They estimate that this is now the fourth highest paying crime in the world, with an annual value of somewhere between five and 20 billion dollars a year. No wonder the trade is growing exponentially. Elephants and rhinos may be dangerous when close up and personal but they don’t carry weapons and are easy targets for well-equipped gangs. Also in the firing line are those tasked with protecting the target species and United for Wildlife estimate that over 1,000 rangers have been killed in the last 10 years; that’s 2 human lives lost every week.
Statistics are powerful enough, but give no sense of the reality of the savagery and destruction taking place on the ground. The fact that over 20,000 elephants were killed in Africa in 2012 may be shocking, but tells us nothing about the way they died or the methods of the poachers. As the big money moves in, often fueled by rising demand for ivory in the Far East, the hunters are becoming more and more cruel. In the past, poachers would pick off individual elephants, targeting the larger animals with the biggest tusks. But now local rangers are seeing more instances of whole families and groups of elephants being killed at one time. Hunters are now prepared to surround and destroy a whole herd. A BBC report in January contains a short but extremely graphic video of the discovery of three dead elephants piled together as well as a description of a multiple slaughter in Kenya when a family of 12 was gunned down following a similar fate for nine elephants the previous month. The image of those animals rotting in the sun, their faces cut away for the tusks, is not easy to ignore or forget. The poachers use guns, but also poison arrows and laced watermelons, even placing poison covered nails in the ground, which are clearly indiscriminate and potentially deadly to any passing wildlife.
Kenya has a well-organized anti-poaching system, but even they are struggling against the tide. Out in the killing fields a small but deadly war is going on. The rangers are now often organized into flying hit squads, the “Rapid Response Units” described by the BBC as a state-sanctioned military force with army style jungle uniforms and Kalashnikovs. These men mean business. As the leader of one such group told the BBC “When we meet a poacher we just kill. It’s the only way to protect the animals, just to kill the poacher.”
Here we have a perfect storm of escalating crime and violence. Demand and commodity prices are rising (rhino horn is worth more than gold), guns and poverty are commonplace in Africa, and people are prepared to go to war to kill or to protect.
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