It’s Time to Stop Arresting Wildlife Poachers

Imaging the following situation: a lion is found dead next to a cattle carcass that has been poisoned. Analysis of the scene points towards a 22-year old man in the local village as the perpetrator, and his guilt is confirmed by witnesses who sold him the poison and saw him dragging the carcass to where the lion was killed.

What is the appropriate response? Most people would say he should be arrested and prosecuted, and some would argue for an even stronger punishment. He is guilty, after all, and lions are a protected species, so there is no justification for killing them. Furthermore, an example needs to be set to stop other people poaching in future.

But perhaps it is not that simple. Upon interviewing the young man, you find out that his father was killed by that lion a month ago. He and his 8 siblings have now lost the man they depended on – he was the only one with a job, because unemployment is so high – to survive. His younger sister is ill and requires expensive hospital treatment, which they cannot afford, so she is likely to die. This is not the first time the lion has killed; another man in the same village was killed a week ago. Neither family has received any compensation or support of any kind, and so have been left destitute. The young man tells you he was simply trying to keep the rest of the village safe as he didn’t know what else to do. He generally likes lions, but this one was old and struggling to find food, so had started to attack people, and he didn’t want it to kill anyone else, or its pride to start attacking people.

Now what do you think is the appropriate response?

While some people will still think arresting and imprisoning the young man is still the correct response, most people change their minds.

This is often the reality in real-life. While organised poaching groups hunt wildlife to sell through the Illegal Wildlife Trade, and this forms a major part of the poaching problem, some animals are killed by local communities in retaliation or self-defence against attacks on them and their livestock or crops, from lions killing cattle to elephants destroying fields of crops.

Killing the animals is still wrong, but is understandable – how many people in the UK lay rat poison, mouse traps and slug pellets, and similar ‘rodent’ responses? While we see elephants and lions as iconic species, to some people they are pests, and they respond accordingly.

So conservation must move beyond purely arresting poachers and look to the deeper causes – where wildlife conflict takes place, support needs to be provided to victims to compensate after the fact and to prevent conflict in the first place.

Many solutions already exist, such as innovative Lion Light Fences and Bee Fences to keep elephants away, as well as a host of other ‘wildlife fences’.

Such approaches are often vastly more effective than arresting people. Arresting people who were simply acting out of desperation and self-defence will antagonise local communities, undermining support for conservation work. That can, in turn, open the door to more poaching – as people see wildlife and rangers as the enemy, they are more willing to work against them, and become ripe for recruitment by organised poaching groups.

Conducting ranger patrols and imprisoning people is expensive, whereas providing support to develop wildlife fences can often be much more cost-effective, certainly in the long-term.

We still need rangers to arrest poachers sometimes, but we also need to look deeper into the causes of poaching incidents and seek to address them. That is better for people and better for wildlife – an intervention to stop a problem emerging is more effective than an intervention after the problem has already emerged.

That is why Wildlife Fences are such an important part of Conservation Crisis – when there is human-wildlife conflict the only effective way to stop it is with some variant of wildlife fences. It’s also why rangers can’t stop all poaching or loss of wildlife in the game – although they are vital to successful conservation, there are some problems they can’t solve, and so alternatives such as wildlife fences, livelihood schemes and compensation are the only effective solution.

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