Thinking of Poaching as a Poverty Problem and Beyond
At Faunalytics, we have covered a range of studies about the hunting of and trade in wildlife, looking at everything from programs that include indigenous populations and improving or reforming CITES, to the use of DNA barcodes to track illegal products and understanding how hunters can be driven to “radicalize” and poach as a response to heavy handed policy. Knowing how to curb or eliminate poaching is complicated, with no easy answers.
One thing that is perhaps not well understood, at least by the general public, is the economics of poaching. Many people know that the products of illegal hunting can fetch huge amounts of money on the black market, but it doesn’t mean that everyone involved in poaching makes enough money to line their pockets. The reality of the situation is a stratified, capitalist model, where hunters, traders, and consumers are engaged in a more complicated chain. As with other industries, the people at the bottom tend to make the least profit. There is a variety of literature that describes poaching as a poverty problem in studies about the illegal hunting of and trade in wildlife, but they tend to stop there.
This study looks at the issue of poaching with the goal of understanding it as a poverty issue. It aims to “recognize the complexities of motivations and political-economic contexts in order to tackle illegal wildlife hunting in a more effective, socially and environmentally just manner.” One of the first things that the authors note is that the very nature of illegal hunting means that studying it is “hampered by a lack of data,” because illegal hunters aren’t open to being studied or surveyed. Still, they state that there is enough data in existence that, when gathered together, helps us to understand the complexities around how poverty contributes to poaching.
The researchers note that, in addition to academic literature, the idea that “people hunt illegally because they are materially poor” is often echoed in “powerful arenas.” They say that the one-dimensional view of poverty as a material condition misses some key details. Firstly, it “does not capture what ‘being poor’ means,” and fails to encompass that poverty involves “a lack of power, prestige, voice, an inability to define one’s future and day-to-day activities, which are difficult to measure in quantifiable terms.” Secondly, the authors state that most conceptions of poverty and poaching tend to ignore that “the poor have agency and are able to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives.” This means that poaching isn’t necessarily just about money, but may also be a way of “affirming identity, status, lifeways, custom and local prestige.” Finally, describing poaching as a poverty problem often means that policy makers think of it as a market problem, one that can be solved by market mechanisms, and rests on the assumption that “market forces will protect the environment.” This is a dicey proposition, even in the best of circumstances.
Overall, the authors urge readers “to take a more expansive view of what constitutes illegal wildlife hunting, what motivates people to hunt illegally and how we might tackle it. […] This means acknowledging that some communities could regard laws that criminalise their continued use of wildlife as unjust, precisely because they were instituted by colonial regimes or post-independence states that those communities regard as oppressive rather than representative.” For advocates, these are important points for us to keep in mind when constructing messaging and engaging with stakeholders. If we are going to curb or stop poaching, we will have to be smart and sensitive in our interactions. As the researchers in this study say, we need “to stop defining illegal wildlife hunting purely as a conservation issue, and see it as a development issue.”