Wildlife conservation in Africa was severely impacted by the pandemic as the tourism industry, which provides vital funding to protect animals, came to a grinding halt. Africa is home to three of the most trafficked animals in the world: pangolin, black Rhino and African elephant. Pangolins account for 20% of all illegal animal trade and can be found in 15 countries across Southern and East Africa. In January 2021, customs officials in Lagos seized over 8,600kg of pangolin scales in containers disguised as furniture, which were destined for Vietnam. Meanwhile, the black rhino is mainly found in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Tanzania after numbers dropped from 65k in 1970 to just over 5k today. Rhino horns can easily fetch $65k per kilogram on the black market while the flesh is sold as bush meat in local markets. In a worrying development, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) elevated the African elephant from vulnerable to a critically endangered species earlier this year after poaching and the loss of habitat reduced the population to just over 400k. All three species are poached for their meat (which is consumed locally) while bones, scales and horns are exported mainly to Vietnam and China, where they are used to make traditional medicines.
Who is to blame for this? And what can be done to curtail illegal animal trade in a region marred by poverty and weak law enforcement? Granted, crime syndicates and armed militia who fund their operations by selling ivory, are benefitting the most from poaching and illegal animal trade, but they are merely part of the problem. There is much more at play here than meets the eye. For one, spending millions of dollars on artillery and training anti-poaching forces is not having the desired effect on reducing poaching. Kruger National Park in South Africa spends nearly $14 million on anti-poaching annually. Yet, its rhino population has depleted drastically, with 594 animals poached in 2019 alone. The number of animals poached in 2021 has reduced because there are fewer and fewer animals to kill. How can one expect relatively poorer countries in Africa, without access to funding and equipment, to successfully tackle poaching?
A bigger problem is that poaching, though prevalent, is rarely a priority for politicians in part because it brings human rights in conflict with animal rights. According to Christy Williams of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), “The value of a rhino horn in illegal trade is probably 100 times the average earnings of a villager living next to [the rhinos].” Considering this, one can appreciate why poaching is viewed in the rural areas as an occupation that puts food on the table. Animals are also killed when they are viewed as a threat to human lives or livelihood. Marauding elephants often ruin farmers’ crops or kill people. Lions and cheetahs feast on cattle when they wander into the villages. Diseases like Ebola and SARs are common in farm animals, which then sell for a pittance in the local markets, forcing villagers to look for alternative products to sell.
Despite all these challenges, there is hope that conservation will not be stopped. Many African countries have made poaching a criminal offense punishable by hefty fines and/or jail time. Numerous non-profits are working to develop alternative employment for poachers, including hiring reformed poachers to police the very areas where they once conducted their criminal activity – it is a model that has worked well for reformed hackers. Many tourism bodies have partnered with international tourism companies to run cross-scale conservation programs with local communities so that they can be compensated, thereby reducing the likelihood of resorting to illegal animal trade to make ends meet.