Save the elephant: what we can learn from failures of the war on drugs


Gary Potter, The Conversation

Date Published

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Elephant populations in Africa have declined by 30% in just seven years, mainly thanks to poaching. If the trend continues, half the continent’s remaining elephants are predicted to disappear within the next decade.

The slaughter of so many huge animals, risking extinction, is rightly considered an ecological problem. But poaching and the illegal wildlife trade are also crimes and, as such, we can turn to criminology for possible solutions.

The so-called war on drugs means there is decades of experience in dealing with crimes related to trafficking. The major driver behind poaching is the illegal trade in body parts such as elephant tusks or rhino horns (although the demand for bush meat and exotic pets also plays a role, particularly for smaller animals). This illegal wildlife trade is a market – much like the global drug market. And although 50 years of the war on drugs has arguably achieved little success (illegal drugs are still widely used and readily available) we can still learn important lessons from the failures of drug policy.

What unites poachers and coca farmers

There are many similarities between poaching and the cultivation of drug plants like the coca bush (from which cocaine is produced) and the opium poppy (the source of heroin). Both tend to happen in geographically remote and economically undeveloped areas beyond the effective reach of governments and their police forces.

Both poaching and drug cultivation are driven by consumer demand, with prices inflated by the fact that the products are illegal. Both tend to involve a combination of poor locals, who do the actual killing or growing, and professional criminals and organised crime groups, who mastermind the trafficking.

Global attempts at drug crop eradication, although often unsuccessful, have taught us many things. Just focusing on policing tends not to be effective: drug growers move deeper into the wilderness to avoid detection, or plant more crops in the first place to allow for some losses from eradication efforts. Militarisation of policing is matched by more militarised traffickers – just look at the Colombian or Mexican drug cartels, or the findings of the 2015 Small Arms Survey findings on armed poachers in Africa. Harsh sentencing and loss of income alienates local populations dependant on drug money for economic survival.

What we’ve learned from the war on drugs is that, alongside policing, there must be a focus on reducing demand for elephant ivory, rhino horn and other animal products. Authorities also need to provide alternative economic activities, and understand local political and cultural situations that find trafficking acceptable. This can be easily translated to poaching. The development of ecotourism places economic value on protecting wildlife, while education and political empowerment on a local level helps shift attitudes.

Criminology vs poaching

There are solid criminological theories behind these policy suggestions. For instance, one idea known as situational crime prevention focuses on reducing the opportunities for a criminal to commit a crime. This can mean making the crime harder to commit, making the target less attractive to the offender, or increasing the chance of the criminal being caught in the act.

Installing fences to keep poachers out of certain areas would be one obvious application of this idea. Another would be to increase the numbers of game wardens and boost other surveillance methods, such as aerial drones.

A successful example here is the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in Uganda. Rhinos were once hunted to extinction in Uganda, but have been reintroduced in the 70km2 reserve. The sanctuary is surrounded by an electric fence and the rhinos living there are accompanied by armed wardens 24 hours a day. None of the rhinos have been lost to poachers, and the population is growing with 11 births since June 2009.

But we can’t build fences everywhere or employ enough wardens to offer all rhinos this level of protection. This is where other ideas come in, such as routine activity theory, which is related to situational prevention but focuses on the routines of offenders and potential offenders. Understanding how poachers operate – and, in particular, how they choose places to hunt – allows us to more successfully develop interventions. Some academics are developing computer models that map the decision making processes of poachers so we can understand where they’re likely to strike next, and deploy wardens accordingly.

The poaching that is behind the declining elephant population (and so many other species), as well as other environmental problems like deforestation and pollution, are seen as ecological problems. And it is undoubtedly the case that the ecological sciences are best placed to help us understand the nature and intensity of particular environmental harms.

But this should also be seen as a criminological problem – particularly when we talk of the illegal wildlife trade, illegal logging or illegal waste. Criminological theories and tools have largely been developed in the context of urban crimes in the more developed “Western” nations, but they are applicable also to the environmental crimes of rural and wilderness areas around the globe. Ecologists, conservationists and criminologists should work together to tackle these contemporary challenges. Call it green criminology.