Simon Hedges, The Wildlife Conservation Society
Poaching continues to be a massive problem for animals like elephants and rhinos, with the demand for their tusks and horns rendering them more expensive than diamonds. But are we going about tackling this in the right way? Simon Hedges works for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and he explained to Kat Arney the double pronged approach needed to save some of our most vulnerable species.
Simon - It is a very significant problem for a whole suite of species across most of the planet, unfortunately. Obviously, we hear about elephants and rhinos particularly and scary statistics like a hundred thousand elephants killed in three years across Africa 2010-2012. Thousands of rhinos being killed. We’re losing populations and we’re losing range of a lot of species and, of course, a lot of species are threatened by poachers to the extent that they actually go extinct in some places.
Kat - In the case of the mountain gorillas, they were being poached for their hands, their feet, their babies were being taken. In the case of the other species, obviously we get rhinos being poached for their horns, elephants being poached for their ivory. Is it this kind of medicinal and valuable use that makes people want to poach these animals?
Simon - Very much so in the case of those species with the price of rhino horn more than cocaine or even diamonds, and people can make a tremendous amount of money with very limited investment of time. Obviously there’s a risk, a tremendous risk, they might lose their lives but given how poor some people are across the range of the species, there’s a temptation. But more significantly, I think, it’s not just poor people - I think that’s a very important point to get across. What we’re increasingly seeing is organised criminal syndicates involved in the poaching and the trafficking of ivory and of rhino horn, and it’s the involvement of these groups, particularly, that has led to the crisis we’re seeing for elephants and for rhino right now, in the last decade or so.
Kat - This is big stuff if there’s organised groups doing it. How doe we fight it? What are the ways that some people are trying?
Simon - There are a number of tools in the arsenal if you will. Probably the two key things are to secure the key populations of elephants, rhinos, and all the other species that are affected by poaching in the sites they live in through much more sophisticated and much more people-friendly poaching operations than those you were talking about with the Dian Fossey story, obviously one needs local people on side. And it’s important to recognise that local people are often threatened by these armed poaching gangs as well. Their local security, their livelihoods are undermined. So it’s possible to have a win-win situation where anti-poaching operations that are done in a sensitive way and not criminalising the local people, can actually benefit those local people as well as protecting the populations of wildlife we’re interested in.
Kat - As well as getting the local population involved, are there any more hi-tech ways that people can try and stop poachers or do we just need better fencing?
Simon - I don’t think it’s really a question of fencing. Fencing doesn’t have a particularly useful role in anti-poaching, I don’t think. Because poachers can easily cut the fences and, indeed, in many places poachers use fencing wire to make snares. Poaching can be combated through better equipped, better managed, better paid, better motivated rangers whose sacrifice is recognised by the global community. There are possibilities of using things like drones and other hi-tech tools but, essentially, it does come down to motivated people, properly trained to do the job.
Kat - So those are ‘boots on the ground’ kind of approaches, but what about just stopping the demand for these products?
Simon - Yes, absolutely. Two ends of the trade chain, if you like. The poaching end and the demand end are the key ends of the trade and, obviously, poachers are trafficking ivory in between but there’s many, many routes that contraband can be smuggled. It’s rather like water, it takes the path of least resistance. So the key thing to do is reduce the demand and reduce the consumption of ivory, and rhino horn, and these other products in the main markets, which for ivory and rhino horn are China and Vietnam and other countries in the far east, to a large degree.
Kat - How can that be done? I mean if you just say, this is all completely illegal, you shouldn’t do it anymore. Is that the only way we can do it through basically making this stuff illegal?
Simon - Currently, actually, it is legal to trade ivory in many countries around the world in the domestic sense. There’s local markets and it’s perfectly legal to go into London and buy ivory, as it is in Beijing or many other countries. So domestic bans to complement the international ban is definitely part of the jigsaw puzzle and part of the suite of tools we need. But, if you just ban something, you potentially just push the demand underground, like with prohibition with alcohol. So what one also needs to do is to actually educate people and effect behavioural change so that the desire to have those products is reduced. And this has happened before in an number of countries which used to be major players in rhino horn and ivory poaching and consumption are no longer implicated. So we know that demand reduction, consumption can be reduced through a combination of education, awareness raising, and legal approaches.
Kat - We have heard recently that South Africa is considering re-legalising rhino horn. That would seem to fly in the face wouldn’t it - very briefly?
Simon - Yes, international trade remains banned. South Africa can request, but I think an opening of international trade in rhino horn, I think, is tremendously unlikely to be successful in that request at the CITES meeting (the wildlife trade meeting) in the autumn of this year. I think most people think that they will be unsuccessful in that request.