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The young poacher, William Hemsley, 1874

Poaching has traditionally been defined as the illegal hunting, killing, or capturing of wild animals, usually associated with land use rights.[1]

Until the 20th century, most poaching was performed by impoverished peasants for subsistence purposes, supplementing meager diets.[2] By contrast, stealing domestic animals (as in cattle raiding, for example) classifies as theft, not as poaching.[3]

Since the 1980s, the term "poaching" has also referred to the illegal harvesting of wild plant species.[4][5][6]

In 1998 environmental scientists from the University of Massachusetts Amherst proposed the concept of poaching as an environmental crime, defining any activity as illegal that contravenes the laws and regulations established to protect renewable natural resources including the illegal harvest of wildlife with the intention of possessing, transporting, consuming or selling it and using its body parts. They considered poaching as one of the most serious threats to the survival of plant and animal populations.[5] Wildlife biologists and conservationists consider poaching to have a detrimental effect on biodiversity both within and outside protected areas as wildlife populations decline, species are depleted locally, and the functionality of ecosystems is disturbed.[7]

Acts of poaching

File:Lady Baltimore, in her habitat.jpg
Lady Baltimore, a bald eagle in Alaska who survived a poaching attempt, in her Juneau Raptor Center mew, on 15 August 2015

Violations of hunting laws and regulations concerning wildlife management, local or international wildlife conservation schemes constitute wildlife crimes that are typically punishable.[8][9] The following violations and offenses are considered acts of poaching in the USA:


Sociological and criminological research on poaching indicates that in North America people poach for commercial gain, home consumption, trophies, pleasure and thrill in killing wildlife, or because they disagree with certain hunting regulations, claim a traditional right to hunt, or have negative dispositions toward legal authority.[5] In rural areas of the United States, the key motives for poaching are poverty.[12] Interviews conducted with 41 poachers in the Atchafalaya River basin in Louisiana revealed that 37 of them hunt to provide food for themselves and their families; 11 stated that poaching is part of their personal or cultural history; nine earn money from the sale of poached game to support their families; eight feel exhilarated and thrilled by outsmarting game wardens.[13]

In African rural areas, the key motives for poaching are the lack of employment opportunities and a limited potential for agriculture and livestock production. Poor people rely on natural resources for their survival and generate cash income through the sale of bushmeat, which attracts high prices in urban centres. Body parts of wildlife are also in demand for traditional medicine and ceremonies.[7]

The existence of an international market for poached wildlife implies that well-organised gangs of professional poachers enter vulnerable areas to hunt, and crime syndicates organise the trafficking of wildlife body parts through a complex interlinking network to markets outside the respective countries of origin.[14][15]

Effects of poaching

Memorial to rhinos killed by poachers near St Lucia Estuary, South Africa

The detrimental effects of poaching can include:

Many tribal people in Africa, Brazil and India rely on hunting for food and have become victims of the fallout from poaching.[22] In the Indian Kanha Tiger Reserve, they are prevented from hunting, and were illegally evicted from their lands following the creation of nature reserves aimed to protect animals.[23] Tribal people are often falsely accused of contributing to the decline of wildlife. In India for example, they bear the brunt of anti-tiger poaching measures,[24] despite the main reason for the tiger population crash in the 20th century being due to hunting by European colonists and Indian royalties.[25] Stephen Corry, director of the human-rights group Survival International, argues that indigenous peoples have shaped landscapes and managed animal populations for millennia. He asserts that conservation organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund apply the term "poaching" unfairly to tribal people engaging in subsistence hunting while supporting trophy hunting by tourists for a fee.[26]

Species affected by poaching

The leatherback sea turtle is globally threatened due to poaching for eggs, meat and oil.[27]
Dead seal in the snow
The American paddlefish is poached for its eggs

The global decline of leatherback sea turtle populations is attributed to the illegal harvest of eggs and killing of egg-bearing females at nesting sites along Central and South American coastlines of the Caribbean Sea and on the Malaysian Terengganu beach.[27]

In North America

In the early 1990s, crimes against wildlife were rampant in certain parts of the United States, and poaching equaled or exceeded the number of animals hunted legally.[28] As trophy hunting became popular, poaching activity, in particular commercial poaching, increased in the Western states. Commercial poachers kill grizzly bears, moose, bighorn sheep, elk, mountain lions, eagles and snakes. Domestic bear species such as American black bear are slaughtered for their body parts that are used for exotic foods, medicinal purposes and as aphrodisiacs. Walrus is poached for the ivory of their tusks, white-tailed deer for antlers and meat, bobcats for their pelts, and bighorn sheep as trophies. Elk antlers and seal penises[8][29] are used for medicinal purposes. Paddlefish and sturgeon eggs are sold as caviar. Redfish, shellfish, trout and salmon are poached for meat, snakes for their skins, bald eagles for their feathers used in Southwestern art.[8] Protected ridge-nosed rattlesnakes, rock rattlesnakes, twin-spotted rattlesnakes, Sonoran Mountain kingsnakes and massasaugas are illegally collected in Arizona.[30]

Millions of protected plants are illegally collected each year.[31] Plant poaching spans the illegal harvest of ginseng roots, rare orchids, endangered cacti, pitcher plants and Venus flytraps, and tree species such as aspen and western red cedar.[5] Commercial poachers collect hundreds of wildflowers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park every year, in particular American ginseng, orchids and trilliums.[32] Rangers seized about 11,000 illegally harvested ginseng roots in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park between 1994 and 2004, and attribute ginseng poaching to the illegal domestic and international black market. It is estimated that fresh roots of wild ginseng are worth $65–100 per pound, and dried roots about $260–365 per pound.[33] Ginseng is also harvested illegally in Wisconsin.[34] Goldenseal is suspected to be illegally collected in the Hoosier National Forest.[35]

In 2007, it was estimated that parrot trappers capture about 65,000–78,500 wild parrots each year in Mexico, mainly by setting nets or by collecting nestlings from tree cavities. About 50,000–60,000, more than 75%, die before reaching customers. Between 2003 and 2006, Mexican wildlife officials did not issue permits for parrot trapping as legal permits provided cover for the illegal trade of poached parrots. Illegal trapping of wild parrots affects most of the 22 parrot species native to Mexico including:[36]

Commercial poaching of neotropical river otters for their fur is a continuous threat for Mexican populations.[37] Bahía Magdalena is a hot spot for mortality of black, loggerhead, olive ridley and hawksbill sea turtles. More than 600 sea turtles are estimated to be killed yearly inside the bay, mostly for consumption of their meat, which is considered a delicacy in Mexico.[38]

In Central America

The solitary eagle is seriously threatened by poaching.[39] Illegal hunting of Baird's tapirs is a major threat for populations in Costa Rica, Belize and Panama.[40] In Panama, mammal species hunted by poachers comprise white-tailed deer, red brocket deer, collared peccary, agouti and coati. Geoffroy's tamarin, howler monkey, white-faced capuchin and common opossum are captured less often.[41]

West Indian manatees were illegally hunted in the Port Honduras area in Belize at least until the end of the 1990s. Poachers were suspected to come from Guatemala and Honduras. Manatees were killed for meat, and their bones used for carving trinket and other souvenirs sold in local markets in the Yucatán Peninsula.[42] In 2002, it was estimated that about 40 manatees are killed annually along the eastern Nicaraguan coast and in inland wetlands by poachers and incidental drowning in fishing nets.[43]

Other species poached in Central American countries and in the Dominican Republic for being traded alive include Geoffroy's spider monkey, margay, ocelot, great horned guan, crested guan, great curassow, ocellated turkey, great green macaw, Hispaniolan amazon, Hispaniolan parakeet, red-billed toucan, chestnut-mandible toucan, raptors, rosy boa, rattlesnake, Galápagos tortoise, beaded lizard, green iguana, poison dart frogs and freshwater turtles. Snakes, spectacled caiman, Morelet’s and American crocodiles are killed for their skins. Black iguana, mangrove cockle and queen conch are poached for consuming their meat.[44]

In South America

In Colombia the endangered helmeted curassow and the near threatened wattled guan are poached for their meat and eggs.[45] The jacutinga population in the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest is threatened by illegal hunting.[46]

In Sub-Saharan Africa

The population of the critically endangered rhinoceros, inhabiting most of Sub-Saharan Africa, was estimated to have been about 100,000 in 1960 and has now dramatically decreased to only about 4,000, with poaching being attributed as one of the causes of this decline in population.[47] The commercial poaching of white and black rhinoceros escalated in South Africa from 12 rhinos killed in 2004 to 946 rhinos killed in 2013.[48][49] Rhino horns have increasingly been acquired by Vietnamese people.[15] African elephants, lions, greater kudus, elands, impala, duiker, reedbuck, bushbuck, bushpig, common warthog, chacma baboon and greater cane rat are illegally hunted for the bushmeat trade in Mozambique.[50]

African elephants are being poached for their ivory tusks – the heaviest teeth of any animal alive.[51] In October 2013 poachers poisoned more than 300 African elephants in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Conservationists have claimed the incident to be the highest massacre of animals in South Africa in 25 years.[52] African elephants continue to remain a high target for poachers and some researchers have estimated that African elephants may be extinct in 25–50 years in the wild.[53] African elephants have experienced a 60-70% decline in population in two decades, 1979-2002.[54] In Central Africa, 13,607 elephants have been poached in 2012 alone. In East Africa, 8,515 elephants have been poached in 2012 alone.

Illegal poaching for African elephants has increased noticeably in 2008 and correlates with an increase in price for local black market ivory and with increased findings of illegal ivory headed to China. There is a probable species reduction of ~3% in 2011 alone.[55] Estimates of over 25,000 to 35,000 African elephants were killed for their tusks in 2012.[56][57] Despite ivory trade bans in 1989, elephant numbers continue to decline in Africa.[54] Finding and monitoring the origin of illegal ivory found will significantly help in efforts to curb and suppress illegal poaching of African elephants.[58]

In South-East Asia

There are more than 400 endangered faunal species in the Philippines, all of which are illegal to hunt.[citation needed]


A seashell vendor in Tanzania sells to tourists seashells which have been taken from the sea alive, killing the animal inside.

The body parts of many animals, such as tigers and rhinoceroses, are believed to have certain positive effects on the human body, including increasing virility and curing cancer. These parts are sold in areas where these beliefs are practiced - mostly Asian countries particularly Vietnam and China - on the black market.[59]

A vendor selling illegal items at a Chinese market for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Some of the pieces pictured include parts of animals such as a tiger's paw.

Traditional Chinese medicine often incorporates ingredients from all parts of plants, the leaf, stem, flower, root, and also ingredients from animals and minerals. The use of parts of endangered species (such as seahorses, rhinoceros horns, binturong and tiger bones and claws) has created controversy and resulted in a black market of poachers.[60][61] Deep-seated cultural beliefs in the potency of tiger parts are so prevalent across China and other east Asian countries that laws protecting even critically endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger fail to stop the display and sale of these items in open markets, according to a 2008 report from TRAFFIC.[62] Popular "medicinal" tiger parts from poached animals include tiger genitals, culturally believed to improve virility, and tiger eyes.

Rhino populations face extinction because of demand in Asia (for traditional medicine and as a luxury item) and in the Middle East (where horns are used for decoration).[63] A sharp surge in demand for rhino horn in Vietnam was attributed to rumors that the horn cured cancer, even though the rumor has no basis in science.[64][65] Recent prices for a kilo of crushed rhino horn have gone for as much as $60,000, more expensive than a kilo of gold.[66] Vietnam is the only nation which mass-produces bowls made for grinding rhino horn.[67]

Ivory, which is a natural material of several animals, plays a large part in the trade of illegal animal materials and poaching. Ivory is a material used in creating art objects and jewelry where the ivory is carved with designs. China is a consumer of the ivory trade and accounts for a significant amount of ivory sales. In 2012, The New York Times reported on a large upsurge in ivory poaching, with about 70% of all illegal ivory flowing to China.[68][69]

Fur is also a natural material which is sought after by poachers.


Brass Plaque on door at Tremeddafarm, Zennor, Cornwall, England. It reads: Take notice that as of from today's date poachers shall be shot on first sight and if practicable questioned afterwards. By order: J.R. Bramble, Head Gamekeeper to His Grace the Duke of Gumby. 1st November 1868[note 1]

Poaching, like smuggling, has a long counter-cultural history.

The verb poach is derived from the Middle English word pocchen literally meaning bagged, enclosed in a bag.[70][71] Poaching was dispassionately reported for England in "Pleas of the Forest", transgressions of the rigid Anglo-Norman Forest Law.[72]

Poaching was romanticized in literature from the time of the ballads of Robin Hood, as an aspect of the "greenwood" of Merry England. Non est inquirendum, unde venit venison ("It is not to be inquired, whence comes the venison"), observed Guillaume Budé in his Traitte de la vénerie.[73]

The 19th century saw the rise of acts of legislation, such as the Night Poaching Act 1828 and Game Act 1831 in the United Kingdom, and various laws elsewhere. In North America, the blatant defiance of the laws by poachers escalated to armed conflicts with law authorities, including the Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake Bay, and the joint US-British Bering Sea Anti-Poaching Operations of 1891 over the hunting of seals.

Anti-poaching efforts


Members of the Rhino Rescue Project have implemented a technique to combat rhino poaching in South Africa by injecting a mixture of indelible dye and a parasiticide, which enables tracking of the horns and deters consumption of the horn by purchasers. Since rhino horn is made of keratin, advocates say the procedure is painless for the animal.[74]

Another initiative that seeks to protect Africa's elephant populations from poaching activities is the Tanzanian organization Africa's Wildlife Trust. Hunting for ivory was banned in 1989, but poaching of elephants continues in many parts of Africa stricken by economic decline.

The International Anti-Poaching Foundation has a structured military-like approach to conservation, employing tactics and technology generally reserved for the battlefield. Founder Damien Mander is an advocate of the use of military equipment and tactics, including Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, for military-style anti-poaching operations.[75][76][77] Such military-style approaches have garnered some criticism. Rosaleen Duffy of the University of London writes that military approaches to conservation fail to resolve the underlying reasons leading to poaching, and do not tackle either "the role of global trading networks" or continued demand for illegal animal products. According to Duffy, such methods "result in coercive, unjust and counterproductive approaches to wildlife conservation".[78]

Chengeta Wildlife is an organization that works to equip and train wildlife protection teams and lobbies African governments to adopt anti-poaching campaigns. [79]


Large quantities of ivory are sometimes destroyed as a statement against poaching (aka "ivory crush").[80] In 2013 the Philippines were the first country to destroy their national seized ivory stock.[81] In 2014 China followed suit and crushed six tons of ivory as a symbolic statement against poaching.[82][83]

United States of America

Some game wardens have made use of robotic decoy animals placed in high visibility areas to draw out poachers for arrest after the decoys are shot.[84] Sturgeon and paddlefish (aka "spoonbill catfish") are listed as species of "special concern" by the U.S. Federal government, but are only banned from fishing in a few states such as Mississippi and Texas.[85]


Stephen Corry, director of the human-rights group Survival International, has argued that the term "poaching" has at times been used to criminalize the traditional subsistence techniques of indigenous peoples and bar them from hunting on their ancestral lands, when these lands are declared wildlife-only zones.[86] Corry argues that parks such as the Central Kalahari Game Reserve are managed for the benefit of foreign tourists and safari groups, at the expense of the livelihoods of tribal peoples such as the Kalahari Bushmen.[87]

See also


  1. Although the Duke of Gumby is probably a fictitious entity since there is no accessible record of him, the plaque may have had some deterrent effect.


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