What drives wildlife poaching?


Nepal is the first tiger-range country to double the number of the endangered big cats in its reserves, and has marked five successive years of zero rhino poaching -- setting a model for conservation, especially as a country with limited resources.

Yet at the same time Nepal has become a thriving transit hub for trafficked endangered species from India, and even Africa, to China. Although the current Covid-19 epidemic is expected to temporarily reduce the market for wildlife (see adjoining piece), improved trans-Himalayan connectivity between Nepal and China could increase smuggling of tiger and rhino body parts and pangolin scales.

Read also: Coronavirus outbreak may curb wildlife trafficking, Sonia Awale

The value of wildlife trade worldwide is estimated at $20 billion a year, making it an incredibly lucrative illicit business, behind only narcotics, human trafficking, and the arms trade. Poverty is often thought to be the main reason behind people’s involvement in this trade. But is it? 

“There is a common assumption that illegal wildlife trafficking is linked to poverty, but we cannot generalise,” explained Nepali conservationist Kumar Paudel, currently a postgraduate student at the University of Cambridge. “What is the extent of the poverty that leads to wildlife poaching? Are they poaching to provide the next meal for their families, or do they not have enough money to afford a car or a bungalow?”

Three years ago, Paudel interviewed 116 individuals serving time in jails across Nepal for trafficking in wildlife, and he has published some of his findings in a recent paper in the journal Conservation Science and Practice. He asked interviewees about their trade practices, economic conditions and motivations.

While 56% percent were living below the World Bank poverty line, Poudel found that for many others, poaching was a means not of survival but rather of increasing disposable income. Comfortably-off people and even university graduates were involved in illegal hunting.

More than 60% of the respondents were arrested for involvement in rhino poaching, and said illegal wildlife trade was a relatively easy occupation compared to other employment. Nearly all poachers were male, and almost all knew what they were doing was illegal. Three-fourths were from indigenous communities living near protected areas.

Interestingly, Paudel found that 65% of the detained poachers did not think they would be caught, and 84% said they would go back to illegal wildlife trade after being released. “This goes to show that despite having some of the world’s stiffest penalties for wildlife crimes, poachers and smugglers undermine Nepal’s enforcement mechanism or know of loopholes to avoid the penalties, which points to impunity and a lenient system,” Paudel told Nepali Times in an interview. Still, most of the respondents were arrested within a year of having gotten involved in poaching, which seems to show that enforcement is working.

The involvement of the Army in guarding Nepal’s national parks has often been credited for the country’s success in curbing the illegal wildlife trade. In India’s protected areas, poaching is rampant. However, while enforcement works in the conservation of mega fauna like wild elephants, rhinos and tigers, there are questions about smaller endangered species living outside parks, and of sustainability of the method.

“An enforcement-based approach is expensive given the number of police and army officials that need to be recruited, so it begs the question: who will pay for it, especially when we need to work on protection of other smaller species too?” asked Paudel, pointing out that most of those detained appear to be small fry. He added: “It is time we reviewed our enforcement approach and better communicated research to improve the mechanism for conservation.” 

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.