The word “poaching” immediately conjures thoughts of massive elephants in Africa killed to have their tusks sawed off and then left to rot, but in the United States poaching is just as deadly and brutal. Wildlife officials estimate that for every wild animal killed legally – tens of millions of animals per year – another is killed illegally. And with scarce wildlife enforcement resources and countless acres of open land, only a scant few percent of poachers are caught and punished for their crimes.
What is Poaching?
First and foremost, it’s a crime! Poaching is a broad term that includes, but is not limited to, smuggling protected animals dead or alive, killing endangered and threatened animals, killing animals out of their hunting season, using illegal weapons, killing animals on closed land, or leading others to kill animals illegally as an unlicensed guide.
The callous details surrounding each poaching case are often chilling. In one Utah case, two teenagers, participating in a group training dogs to chase black bears, shot the mother bear and two cubs that had taken refuge in a tree, and then left the bears abandoned on the ground.
Criminal poaching rings in Montana have a substantial impact on statewide wildlife populations. For example, in two separate organized poaching-ring investigations that came together in 2005, more than 100 mature big game carcasses were found. Each animal was decapitated and the carcass left to rot.
Why do Poachers Kill?
Poaching is described by wildlife officers as everything from an “addiction” to a money-making industry. Most poachers see nothing wrong with the activity at all, but it’s a crime. Many poachers “thrill kill” animals to obtain a trophy for the wall. A poacher may kill a large elk or deer, chop off the head and valuable antlers and then leave the rest of the animal lying on the ground. Some stockpile the antlers or submit macabre photos depicting the kill to magazines that glorify the killing of a trophy animal.
Poaching has received study and analysis by researchers in the United Kingdom. The predominant view of poaching in the ecological literature is that it is unequivocally detrimental in terms of its impact on biodiversity. Sandra Bell and others, in a 2007 article published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation, state that poaching is rarely seen as unambiguously good or bad by citizens. In one study, researchers found that attitudes toward illegal fishing in Lithuania were best represented by a multi-dimensional spectrum of acceptability, based not only on the perceived threat to fish stocks, but also on a sense of cultural aesthetics, fairness, and identity. Similarly, another study identified a spectrum of ‘deviance’ for tree theft in a North American forest.
In their case study, Bell and colleagues found that poaching cannot be understood simply as an individual action. While individual motivations are important, these feed into and are supported by an underlying cultural logic. This cultural logic is itself flexible and responsive to the changing situation in which local fishermen and hunters, as well as environmental managers and enforcers, find themselves. It encourages environmental managers to distinguish between different forms of poaching and, perhaps, to direct research efforts into investigating the differential ecological impacts of the varied forms of poaching, rather than regarding them all as environmentally destructive. A striking feature of the situation in this study is that people who admit undertaking what they perceive as least detrimental forms of poaching are antagonistic towards what they think are truly harmful forms. Indeed, the fact that they appear willing to act and to support actions against types of poaching they agree to be threatening is a message of potentially great importance for environmental management strategy. However, these efforts can be undermined by the perceived injustice of a system of environmental management that appears indiscriminate in its treatment of offenders.
Clearly, according to the results of this research, one size does not fit all when managing the poaching problem. However, hunting and fishing regulations cannot be enforced effectively on a case-by-case basis. The human reasons for poaching cannot and should not be considered when these regulations are enforced. Law enforcement cannot be subjective, which only leads to bribery and corruption. With this variation in public opinion about poaching, law enforcement treads a difficult path.
Poaching rings can be commercial enterprises, such as a southwestern Montana ring near Gardiner. Between 1999 and 2004, a convicted commercial poacher was paid an estimated $90,000 by about 30 associates who poached more than 40 large and mature bull elk. Or a ring can be a family operation, as was the case in northwestern Montana, near Seeley Lake. A family poaching ring in operation from 1990 to 2002 killed dozens of game animals, including elk, moose, bear, and antelope, and more than100 buck deer.
Increasingly, wildlife officers find that organized poaching rings are proliferating because many of the poached animals can be traded on a lucrative black market. A set of bighorn sheep antlers may go for tens of thousands of dollars, and poachers can sell bear gall bladders to China where they are churned up for an aphrodisiac. Whether it’s for money or a thrill, it’s a crime!
State Wildlife Enforcement
All states and U.S. Territories have wildlife laws and regulations. They are enforced by wildlife officers trained in the fish and game regulations for the particular state. Regulations, including hunting and fishing seasons, differ from state to state. Interstate transport of an illegal take can be litigated as a felony by the Federal Government under the authority of the Lacey Act.
In Arizona, wildlife officers are stepping up efforts against the rising number of illegal immigrants hunting at night for meat to feed their families, and, in some cases, entire neighborhoods. “They know that buying drugs on the streets of Phoenix is illegal, but they don’t view shooting a deer as that big of a deal,” said Dinquel, a 20-year veteran with the game and fish department.
“Poaching is completely out of control in California,” said Dan Taylor, director of public policy at Audubon California. Poaching violations rose to 17,840 in California in 2007, up from 6,538 in 2003. Fishing violations also rose from 8,001 in 2003 to 15,892 in 2007. Taylor said the current penalties are not strict enough to discourage people from poaching. Cases of “extreme” poaching spiked in 2008, according to the California Department of Fish and Game. That year, a man in Gilroy was found with 335 dead birds, a Tuolumne County man was found with the scattered remains of an estimated 26 deer in his home, and two men in Monterey County were arrested for poaching 66 abalone.
California may be cracking down on poaching. Recently, the state Senate Public Safety Committee unanimously approved AB708, a bill that would set a mandatory minimum fine for some poaching violations, including hunting protected birds or hunting over the limit or out of season. The mandatory minimum fine for a first offense would be $5,000 for anyone illegally taking or trading amphibians, birds, fish, mammals or reptiles. The bill has already passed in the Assembly.
State wildlife law enforcement officers, often called Game Wardens, have arduous and sometimes dangerous jobs. They patrol the back country where there are no trails and must interact with lawbreakers who are armed. Recently, an armed confrontation between a father and teenage son reportedly fishing without a license and two Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officers occurred. One officer reportedly had a handgun pointed at his head before he convinced the suspect not to shoot him, and a second officer later exchanged shots with the 18-year-old suspect during a chase near Ephrata before the teen was arrested. It marked the first time in “10 to 15 years” that a state wildlife officer fired his weapon at someone, said Lt. Steve Crown, who leads training for an enforcement division that includes 105 commissioned officers. “From a policing perspective, we are encountering a rougher crowd out there these days,” Cenci, deputy chief of field operations for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said.
To be arrested for violating game laws doesn’t always mean killing animals. For nearly 20 years, the Oregon State Police Department’s Fish and Wildlife Division ran a decoy operation targeting violators who hunted out of season from their cars and roadways or at night with the aid of a spotlight. These violators were charged under state law for firing at a wildlife enforcement decoy, which is considered the same as firing at a live animal. All the same penalties apply.
The Federal Side of Wildlife Enforcement
There are Federal laws to protect migratory birds, endangered species, marine mammals and other kinds of wildlife and plants. Each is a separate Act, the most familiar being the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Constitution is the primary framework for Federal wildlife law. The Lacey Act is the most inclusive and explicit authority for Federal law wildlife enforcement. First enacted in 1900 and significantly amended in 1981, it is the United States’ oldest wildlife protection statute. The Lacey Act combats trafficking in “illegal” wildlife, fish, or plants. The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, effective May 22, 2008, amended the Lacey Act by expanding its protection to a broader range of plants and plant products. The Lacey Act now makes it unlawful to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase in interstate or foreign commerce any plant, with some limited exceptions, taken or traded in violation of the laws of the United States, a State, or a foreign country. Though several state courts considered the constitutionality of the Act, no court found it unconstitutional. Its most recent amendment occurred in 2009, adding the illegal removal of trees to the list of enforceable activities.
Here is an example of federal law enforcement action under the authority of the Lacey Act:
Federal officials reported that an Arlington wildlife importer for whom they’ve issued an arrest warrant is a fugitive. An arrest warrant was issued for Jasen B. Shaw, who is wanted for violation of the Lacey Act, the main federal weapon against illegal hunting and criminal trade in wildlife. The Dallas Morning News reported that the arrest warrant was issued Feb. 10, but was kept confidential for several months. The reason for withholding the report was not given.
In December, more than 26,000 animals were seized from 37-year-old Shaw’s company, U.S. Global Exotics. Many of the animals were dead or dying. The company was later shut down. A special agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told the newspaper that investigators believe Shaw fled to his native New Zealand to avoid prosecution.
The Lacey Act is a powerful tool in law enforcement against poachers. Poaching in all its forms is a crime and it will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
It’s not just in the U.S.; poaching is a world-wide problem. It is the single most destructive force on large wildlife from cats to elephants. International poaching and smuggling are done for the money! There are poaching rings that sell to the black market everything from tusks to gallbladders. Wildlife smuggling is an environmental crime that is estimated to be a $15-20 billion annual trade. Stemming the flow of illegal animals and animal parts is an international effort.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is the weapon of choice to fight this crime. It is an international agreement between governments, drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1973 at a meeting of members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival and it accords varying degrees of protection to more than 33,000 species of animals and plants. To ensure that the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was not violated, the Secretariat of GATT was consulted during the drafting process.
CITES is one of the largest conservation agreements in existence. Participation is voluntary, and countries that have agreed to be bound by the Convention are known as Parties. Although CITES is legally binding on the Parties, it does not take the place of national laws. Rather it provides a framework respected by each Party, which must adopt their own domestic legislation to implement CITES at the national level. Often, domestic legislation is either non-existent (especially in Parties that have not ratified it), or with penalties incommensurate with the gravity of the crime and insufficient deterrents to wildlife traders. As of 2002, 50% of Parties lacked one or more of the four major requirements for a Party: designation of Management and Scientific Authorities; laws prohibiting the trade in violation of CITES; penalties for such trade; laws providing for the confiscation of specimens.
CITES works by subjecting international trade in specimens of listed species to certain controls. These require that all import, export, re-export and introduction from the sea of species covered by the Convention has to be authorized through a permitting system. Roughly 5,000 species of animals and 28,000 species of plants are protected by CITES against over-exploitation through international trade. Each protected species or population is included in one of three lists, called Appendices. The Appendix that lists a species or population reflects the extent of the threat to it and the controls that apply to the trade.
There are limitations to CITES, however. The most notable include:
• It focuses on trade at the species level and does not address habitat loss, ecosystem approaches to conservation, or poverty;
• It seeks to prevent unsustainable use rather than promote sustainable use, which generally conflicts with the Convention on Biological Diversity;
• It does not explicitly address market demand. Funding does not provide for increased on-the-ground enforcement; parties? must apply for bilateral aid for most projects of this nature.
By design, CITES regulates and monitors trade in the manner of a “negative list” such that trade in all species is permitted and unregulated unless the species in question appears on the Appendices or looks very much like one of those taxa, then, and only then, is trade regulated or constrained.
What You Can Do
This is a case of “Think globally, act locally.” In the U.S. and many industrialized nations, wildlife belongs to all people, but poachers who step into our wild backyard set out to exploit animals with the knowledge that they probably will not be caught. But by state and Federal wildlife agencies sharing information on poachers and citizens taking the role as stewards of wildlife seriously, these killings can be stopped. Here’s how you can help:
• Equip yourself with knowledge. Headed out to go hiking or bird-watching? Know your state’s wildlife regulations and hunting seasons so you can readily identify violations.
• If you see suspicious activity, don’t try to confront the individual. First, get a description of the poacher, the vehicle, and surrounding area.
• Second, call your state wildlife enforcement department immediately. The availability of cell phones makes this possible. Timeliness is necessary to catch poachers.
• Find your state’s poaching tip line and keep it on your cell phone list.
We can all fight this crime. You don’t have to be a wildlife enforcement officer, just an alert citizen.
Published in THE PATH issue #1, 2011