By Paula Kahumbu
Corruption is what drives the vicious circle linking poverty to organised crime and is the root cause of the current poaching crisis
A Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) ranger stands guard over an ivory haul seized as it transited through Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi. The commitment and integrity of wildlife agencies is key in the war against the poachers. Photograph: TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images
In order to win the war against poaching we have to understand its causes. There are two main explanations for why poaching is endemic and so hard to eradicate in developing countries.
The first explanation is that poaching is driven by organised crime. A recent, widely publicised report by Born Free: “Ivory’s Curse: The Militarisation and Professionalisation of Poaching in Africa”, details the web of corruption linking crime cartels to government officials, army officers and businessmen.
In buying the services of the individuals they need to oil the wheels of their criminal enterprises, the cartels achieve a degree of high level cooperation between the public and private sectors that development agencies can only dream of.
Evidence of the inner workings of crime syndicates is, naturally, hard to come by. But there is plenty of evidence of the involvement of corrupt officials and police officers in the illegal wildlife trade, such as the recent arrest of two police officers in Kenya.
In its conclusions, the Born Free report in calls for anti-poaching investment to be strategically re-focused on the traffickers and cartels.
The second explanation is that poaching is driven by poverty. An earlierIUCN report on elephant poaching provides statistics showing that child mortality and other povert indicators are correlated to poaching intensity. The general conclusion is that poverty drives people to poach.
In this scenario poachers are victims of poverty, but they are also the actual killers of elephants and rhinos, and this is where most governments currently have to invest anti-poaching efforts. But in the longer-term the only sustainable solution is development, to alleviate the poverty that is the cause of poaching.
There is no reason to believe that these two very different explanations contradict one another. Both are almost certainly true. The trade in ivory and other illegal wildlife products is complex, diverse and constantly evolving, like any other trade. Like any other business enterprise, the crime cartels are constantly on the lookout for new opportunities to maximize their profits.
But: how are these two causes of poaching interconnected? In weighing up the evidence, we should bear the following points in mind:
(1) People are not criminals because they are poor. Africa is full of inspiring stories of community-based conservation and development initiatives: stories of poor people trying to make an honest living, using natural resources sustainably.
(2) You don’t have to be poor to be a criminal. Rhino horns are regularly the target of thieves in the UK as well – here also there is evidence that the crime cartels are in the background, masterminding operations.
(3) Any high-value, lightweight product is going to attract the attention of organised crime cartels, be it drugs, diamonds or illegal wildlife products.
Note that it is value of the product that matters, not whether or not it is intrinsically “illegal”. Cartels deal in prescription drugs as well as banned substances, in diamonds as well as rhino horns. This puts paid to arguments that legalising trade in rhino horn is the way to stop poaching.
Let’s look again at the conclusions of the IUCN report which shows a correlation between poaching and poverty. One of the first things that students of statistics are taught is that a correlation does not provide proof of causality. Poverty could be the cause of poaching, but the causal process could go in the other direction: could poaching could be the cause of poverty?
This might sound far-fetched, but poaching does contribute to poverty, by impoverishing communities of their natural capital which could be sustainably harvested or used through tourism for the benefit of wider society.
Poaching also introduces corruption and criminality into communities, leading to the incarceration of young working aged men. The insecurity brought by armed poachers threatens all investments – poachers are known to raid homes and markets for food, steal vehicles and even rape women.
The IUCN report finds that while areas where poverty is worst also see higher levels of elephant poaching, poor villagers do not benefit from the illicit ivory trade. Thus incomes for a few poachers are matched by threats to legitimate sources of income, driving the community greater into poverty and potentially into ever greater dependence on the poaching cartels.
I would argue that corruption what drives this vicious circle and is the root cause of the current poaching crisis. Corruption is the catalyst that binds poverty to organised crime and activates their full destructive potential.
Ingrained corruption in societies gives the cartels freedom of movement to exploit poor people and evade capture. Where corruption is already endemic, it is easy for criminals to further corrupt the system, taking advantage of existing networks developed, for example, for the drugs trade or human trafficking. Where there is no corruption, the cartels will take steps to introduce it.
Would a study of the statistics reveal a correlation between corruption and poaching in the MIKE countries? My guess is it would. Certainly there is evidence to support this hypothesis from one country, Botwana.
This country has long had a policy of zero tolerance for corruption. In the latest report issued by Transparency International, Botwana stands out on the map of Africa as having the continent’s lowest levels of corruption– lower than some European countries.
Botwana also has the largest population of elephants in Africa as well as the best record on poaching in Africa. In a desperate measure, Rhinos are now being moved to Botwana to put them beyond the reach of rampant poaching in neighbouring South Africa, where corruption is endemic at all levels of society.
Drones are being introduced to protect elephants and rhinoceroses in African national parks. The photograph shows the bungee-launch of a Falcon UAV unpiloted aircraft in a demonstration in Namibia. Photograph: © Falcon UAV launch – Helge Denker/WWF-Namibia
Governments and private donors, including the millionaire Howard Buffet, are rushing to Africa to support anti-poaching efforts with drones, helicopters, and more boots on the ground. This is a welcome sign of growing global awareness of the urgency of the situation. Wildlife protection agencies need state-of-the-art technology such as night vision equipment to combat the poachers, who are already using it.
But technology and manpower alone will not solve the problem so long as corruption is not dealt with. Anti-poaching investments in a country with good governance, like Botswana, will contribute towards effective surveillance and protection. But in corrupt countries, there is a real danger the money will end up funding the poachers instead.
In Kenya, there is chilling evidence of how sophisticated surveillance equipment like GPS locators, intended to protected rhinos, is being used by poachers, with the help of corrupt or frightened officials, to locate and target their prey.
The recent announcement of a substantial pay rise for Kenyan rangers protecting elephant and rhino sanctuaries is hugely welcome, a sign that the message that morale and commitment are as important as equipment is beginning to get through.
The corruption highlighted by Born Free Report is an insidious and largely unspoken and filthy threat, not only to African wildlife, but to society as a whole. But this threat is also an opportunity for environmentalists to achieve their long-held dream of mainstreaming the environment in national policy agendas.
To do so, local environmental activists must also become part of the mainstream, by uniting with other social forces in the broader struggle against corruption, and for a fair and just society where humans and animals alike are free to go about their legitimate business.
This article can be found in this link: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/africa-wild/2014/may/05/war-on-poaching-cannot-be-won-unless-we-take-on-corruption