Guest Editorial: Wildlife Crime In Africa: What Can Hunters Do? By Dr. John Hanks
April 2015, Volume 13-2

Editor’s Note: Dr. John Hanks is a zoologist with a degree from Magdalene College, Cambridge, and a PhD on the reproductive physiology, growth, and population dynamics of the African elephant. He has over 45 years of experience in a wide variety of applied conservation management and research projects and worked in Angola, Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Major postings: Natal Parks Board CPO; Head of the Department of Biological Sciences and Director of the Institute of Natural Resources at the University of Natal; Director of the WWF- International Africa Program; CEO of WWF-South Africa; Executive Director of Peace Parks Foundation; Director of Conservation International’s TFCA Initiatives and Wilderness Program in Southern Africa. More recently he worked on management plans for protected areas, and in environmental education as Chairman of the Lapalala Wilderness School and Senior Fellow of GreenMatter. John published over 150 scientific papers.

If anyone had even suggested in 1965 when I first started working in Africa in Zambia’s Kafue National Park that terrorist organizations would one day be driving, encouraging and benefiting from the killing of elephants and rhinos I would have dismissed them as living in the world of pulp fiction. Yet the reality is that the militias of North Sudan, complicit in Khartoum’s genocidal campaign in Darfur, have for decades been financed by ivory proceeds. By 2013 Islamic extremists were increasingly turning to the illegal wildlife trade to bankroll their operations, and there is now firm evidence that ivory and rhino horn account for a significant share of the budget of the Al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate that carried out the attacks in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and much more recent appalling slaughter of 148 people at Kenya’s Garissa University. In fact, some 40 per cent of al-Shabaab’s revenue comes from illicit ivory sales, a growing part of the global illegal wildlife trade that is worth a staggering $23 billion a year1.

The link between the threat of terrorism and the fate of endangered species can no longer be ignored – the cost of allowing poachers free rein to traffic in what we can call ‘blood rhino horn’ and ‘blood ivory’ is far too high. But not all of this highly organized criminal network and illegal wildlife trade is linked to terrorism, and elsewhere the trade in animals (and plants) is just one more resource that can be obtained all too easily in Africa and sold on for massive profits.

Of equal concern is that although the continent’s National Parks, Game Reserves and Game Management Areas should be at the forefront in efforts to guarantee the long-term security of species and landscapes, their ability to do so is being seriously compromised by a major shortfall in financial support for virtually all of those designated and listed by IUCN. This highly unsatisfactory situation is compounded by inadequate law enforcement linked to widespread corruption, a lack of a political commitment to biodiversity conservation2, and the continued alienation of adjacent rural communities by punitive measures to protect wildlife, which in too many cases make little or no attempt to help these people develop alternative sustainable livelihoods3.

Furthermore, far too many of these designated conservation areas are becoming isolated from one another through an unprecedented rate of deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, agricultural expansion and urbanization, condemning to extinction thousands of species far less charismatic than rhino and elephants, and impacting directly and indirectly on the security of the protected areas.

How can hunters respond to these threats to the security of designated GMAs and the species that live there and elsewhere on the continent? In short, there is no single solution, but there are a number of options that can and should be more actively pursued to reduce wildlife crime.

Increased field protection of valuable species must be top of the list, with every effort being made to ensure the survival of as many individuals as possible in those areas that are most likely to be successful. Unfortunately the GMAs and private land-owners get little or no assistance from the plethora of NGOs funding anti-poaching programs, in spite of 25% of South Africa’s rhinos alone being on private land, areas which today hold more rhinos than the combined population in the rest of Africa. Even the Kruger National Park, which receives over a million visitors each year, cannot manage to stop wildlife crimes in spite of massive external aid from many NGOs, and the $24 million from US philanthropist Howard Buffett for protecting rhinos, with further assistance from 180 military personnel deployed in the park.

The Professional Hunters Association of South Africa is already donating generously to a variety of anti-poaching activities, including helping with the training of over 900 conservation staff from other African countries at the Southern African Wildlife College with a significant emphasis on anti-poaching. Enhanced field security means more, better-trained, better-motivated and led and better-equipped staff, and there is no doubt that the presence of professional hunting teams in GMAs is providing this much-needed expertise with their visible presence during the hunting season being a significant deterrent to poaching, which should ideally be continued during the off-season, and welcomed by the countries that still have viable GMAs.

The professional hunting associations all over Africa, as well as the amateur hunting associations in Southern Africa and their international counterparts around the globe could also help with the funding, training, equipping and mentoring of independent rapid deployment teams with trackers and dogs which should be on-call in high-risk areas for wildlife crimes. The capacity of most state organizations to respond effectively and timeously is regrettably declining, and an independent initiative of this nature has the potential to be a significant deterrent. Hunters provide already the “Boots on the Ground” in most, if not all African countries with hunting tourism programs.

Identify and prosecute the middle-men – the “drivers” of wildlife crime: The criminal enterprises involved in the illegal wildlife trade are far better organized today than they were when rhino poaching started to increase significantly in South Africa in 2011. International NGOs and their donors need to understand that apprehending poachers in the field will not stop rhino poaching unless there is a simultaneous effort to strike at, disrupt and eventually destroy the central nervous system of the criminal networks that supply the weapons and ammunition, bribe the police, customs officials and wildlife authorities, and then transport and sell rhino horns to end-users. Conventional approaches to intelligence gathering are likely to fail when corrupt government officials learn that their complicity will be exposed. Options for unconventional methods of disrupting the criminal networks, which avoid government departments and their parastatals, need to be developed and implemented. With the extent of corruption in the majority of countries that still have rhino populations, there is no alternative.

Unfortunately, corruption has become an entrenched way of life for many of the political elite on the continent, and increasingly in other sectors of society. This scourge ranges from high-level graft at ministerial level involving millions of dollars to low-level bribes to customs officials and members of the police. While political graft imposes the largest direct financial cost on a country, widespread smaller bribes have had a corrosive effect on basic institutions and undermine public trust in the government. The sobering reality is that, according to Transparency International, a leading global watchdog on corruption, of the 10 countries considered most corrupt in the world, six are in sub-Saharan Africa and in countries where wildlife crime is well-established.

Tackling corruption on such a massive scale is obviously way beyond the remit or capacity of any single hunting organization, and even calling attention to corruption would also certainly be a threat to their ability to continue working in the country concerned. However, many hunters have well-established networks of contacts, and through these information is and can be obtained on individuals involved in criminal activities, although what to do with this information has always been a concern.

A recent potentially encouraging development has been the launch in February 2014 of WildLeaks, a sort of WikiLeaks for the environment, the first secure, online whistleblowing platform dedicated to wildlife and forest crime (see Founded by Andrea Costa, a former security consultant and long-time conservationist, it received its first tip within 24 hours, and has attracted a great deal of interest and support. ”We got, for example, a very interesting leak on a very powerful individual in Kenya, linked to the government, who is behind the ivory trade“, said Costa, “unlike others operating in the field, we are not after small-time poachers or traffickers, but the people above them, including corrupt government officials“. With the terrorism links I mentioned earlier, hunters and counter-terrorism officials must start working together to tackle this growing threat, and the sooner the better.

Give active support for a legal trade in rhino horn: Although the rhino is just one species of the growing list of plants and animals that are killed or gathered for highly profitable illegal sales, it surely must be recognized and accepted that in spite of the massive effort that has gone into closing down the trade and discouraging rhino horn use, these efforts have failed and there is no reason to believe that this will change in short-term. No matter what punitive of prohibitive measures we introduce, rhinos and many other wildlife species will continue to dwindle unless we have a fundamental rethink on the way forward. I am firmly convinced that a legal trade in rhino horn deserves serious consideration as a new approach. South Africa can and should present a very strong case to CITES for a legal trade that will benefit agencies responsible for protected areas, the private land-owners with rhinos and the communities living adjacent to areas with rhinos, but can expect serious opposition from animal rights bodies and NGOs who have a plethora of (emotional) opinions but no accountable responsibility for wildlife management.

Keeping a species on CITES Appendix 1 in the belief that it will guarantee its long-term survival ignores the realities of African conditions, allowing the criminals to continue to profit from and control the market until no more rhinos are left. In contrast a controlled legal trade should have a significant impact on helping to increase rhino numbers, an approach strongly advocated by the late Ian Player, who has done more than any other individual to ensure rhinos have a realistic and sustainable future in Africa4. Much will depend on how the legal trade would be established, and it would have to be accompanied by enhanced field security, a much bigger commitment to working with and bringing sustainable benefits to communities living adjacent to areas with valuable wildlife species, improved law enforcement, prosecutions and gathering of forensic evidence, and the identification and prosecution of the “drivers” of the illegal trade.

In this short editorial I can do no more than touch on some of the options open for professional hunter involvement. For more details and a comprehensive bibliography, please see Hanks, J. (2015). Operation Lock and the war on rhino poaching. Cape Town: Zebra Press.


1Vira, V., Ewing, T. & Miller, J. (2014). Out of Africa. Mapping the Global Trade in Illicit Elephant Ivory. Washington D.C.: Born Free & C4ADS.

2 Watson, J.E.M., Dudley, N., Segan, D.B. & Hockings, M. (2014). The   performance and potential of protected areas. Nature 515: 67–73.

3 IUCN (2015) Community-led solutions: a key force in tackling wildlife crime.