Over the past several years animal poaching has been a severely increasing problem particularly in South Africa in regards to Rhino poaching. This brings up one of the hardest questions to answer: How do we stop this? Yes, surveillance, monitoring, stricter border control and law implementation are great measures but they tend not to fully stop poaching. In fact sometimes they can have the adverse effect of driving up the prices of the animal products. The reason this is harmful is because it can encourage more people, especially people living in extreme poverty, to take the risk and become poachers. The real solution would be the one that destroys the initial desire or demand for the animal product, in this case one of the most effective tools is education, however it can take years, even whole generations before it becomes effective. 

So how do we stop animal poaching now? This is where the conversation becomes a bit more controversial. We live in a world driven by consumerism – supply and demand, when it comes to animal poaching there are two areas we need to address: How to stop people from becoming poachers and how to stop people from buying poached animal products. Seeing as most poached animal products often get transported great distances from their source it is hard to have a conversation with the buyers especially considering this often involves multiple countries and vastly different laws. So this leaves us with the task of dealing with the poachers. The only way to make people not become poachers is to rise the risk and lower the reward. In terms of rhino poaching we have done a decent job of raising the risks of poaching these animals, but as mentioned before this has only made the product more valuable – A catch 22 perfectly following the law of unintended consequences.  The only real option left is to somehow drastically decrease the value of the animal product. This is where that controversial conversation comes in. The fastest sure-fire way to drastically drop the prices of the animal products is to flood the market with those exact products, oversupply for the demand. This can be done by means of animal product farming where you save the wild animal group by farming and breeding a selection of the animals in captivity – pretty much sacrificing one for the many. We see this type of “solution” playing out in the fur industry. And as people become more educated and synthetic fabrics increase in quality the fur industry is facing a slow but eventual death, at least in most parts of the world. Yes, animals are still being killed in the millions each year for their fur but at least the wild populations of those animals are now protected from extinction, right? This method, sacrifice the one for the many, or in these cases “captivate and farm some to save some”, although cruel, can have the potential to at least prevent the species from becoming endangered, to save the wild populations. One would think so, this is why the conversation of Rhino horn farming has become increasingly popular in South Africa over the last few years in a last-ditch effort to save the endangered species. Not only could we farm the Rhino horns but places like the Kruger National Park and the Pilanesberg park have massive storages of Rhino horn collected from the animals the have died over many decades. We could flood the market with Rhino horn tomorrow if we desired. We could bring the price crashing down and in essence make Rhino horn a valueless product. Surely taking these extremes will save our Rhinos now? Maybe or maybe not. By flooding the market, we could turn Rhino horn into a valueless commodity, which is the desired outcome.

However, there is a flip side to this coin, Rhino horn has also become much more affordable (and legal) which could create Rhino horn buyer from people who would otherwise never have been even interested in the product. What started out as a conservation plan has just turned into a nightmare, we have successfully increased the amount of people who now consume Rhino horn, thus driving up the demand, thus driving up the price, thus driving up number of poachers. Thus finally, after all that effort, we are back at square one, a huge demand for Rhino horn and lots of poachers. Except now the job of poaching is easier, they can just attack Rhino farms instead of having to risk bumping into Lions and Leopards in the Kruger Park. This is the absolute worst-case scenario, but is it worth the risk? 

As you can see the world of animal conservation is littered with Catch 22’s and unintended consequences. Tackling the problem of animal poaching is an enormous feat that appears to hardly have any good or effective solutions. It’s a problem that can drive one crazy trying to solve.

For now, the only real effective solution, without unintended consequences, is education, but education takes time, lots of time. Can we protect our animals long enough for this to take effect?

Contributor: Lexi Burling (Pseudo name)

BSc and honours degree specialising in environmental sciences as well as soil and water chemistry.