Poachers-- Killers for Financial Gain--Continue to Endanger World's Animal Population

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By Mark R. Gould

Tigers--and many other animals--continue to be hunted and killed for profit, endangering the world's animal population.

According to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, “Tigers have undergone a dramatic decline over the past century. At the beginning of the 20th century wild tigers numbered nearly 100,000 in the wild. After decades of over-hunting, poaching, encroachment, and habitat degradation and fragmentation, tigers number no more than 3,200 in the wild today. Those 3,200 individuals live in only seven percent of their historic range, which spanned from northeastern Russia, and eastern China, to southeastern Asia.”

Tigers were declared endangered in 1968 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and their numbers have continued to decline since then. Scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) “have been studying tiger biology and ecology almost since they were declared endangered. The 1972 Smithsonian-Nepal Tiger Ecology Project identified over-hunting and habitat loss as the culprits behind the dwindling tiger population. Today SCBI scientists are still working to save tigers, and share their expertise with others working to protect tigers.”

In 2008 the Smithsonian Institution became a founding member of the Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), along with the World Bank and many others. "GTI is working to mitigate the threats to wild tigers and double the population by 2022, the next Chinese Year of the Tiger. There has never been an international effort of this magnitude to save tigers; and it is possible that without any action tigers could go extinct in the wild within the next decade. In addition to its work with GTI the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is also doing its own conservation work to save tigers. The Smithsonian’s Tiger Conservation Partnership (TCP) hosts courses in tiger-range countries to help land managers, conservationists, and wildlife law enforcement officials protect tigers."

Smithsonian scientists have been working to identify the causes behind the reduction in the tiger population. "The Global Tiger Initiative (GTI) is using the research of SCBI scientists and other GTI participants to implement programs to double the number of wild tigers by 2022. The Smithsonian's Tiger Conservation Partnership (TCP) is also working in the field to share its conservation expertise with the people charged with protecting tigers and their habitats."

Dian FosseyDian Fossey (1932–1985), pictured at left, was an American zoologist who undertook an extensive study of gorilla groups over a period of 18 years. She studied them daily in the mountain forests of Rwanda, initially encouraged to work there by famous anthropologist Louis Leakey.

Called one of the foremost primatologists in the world while she was alive, Fossey, along with Jane Goodall and Birute Galdikas, was part of the so-called Leakey's Angels, a group of three prominent researchers on primates (Fossey on gorillas; Goodall on chimpanzees; and Galdikas on orangutans) sent by archaeologist Louis Leakey to study great apes in their natural environments.

The Digit Fund reports that “Sometime during the day on New Year's Eve 1977, Fossey's favorite gorilla, Digit, was killed by poachers. As the sentry of study group 4, he defended the group against six poachers and their dogs, who ran across the gorilla study group while checking antelope trap lines. Digit took five spear wounds in ferocious self-defense and managed to kill one of the poachers' dogs, allowing the other 13 members of his group to escape.  Digit was decapitated, and his hands cut off for an ashtray, for the price of $20. After his mutilated body was discovered by research assistant Ian Redmond, Fossey's group captured one of the killers. He revealed the names of his five accomplices, three of whom were later imprisoned.

Fossey subsequently created the Digit Fund (now the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International in the USA) to raise money for anti-poaching patrols. In addition, a consortium of international gorilla funds arose to accept donations in light of Digit's death and increased attention on poaching. Fossey mostly opposed the efforts of the international organizations, which she felt inefficiently directed their funds towards more equipment for Rwandan park officials, some of whom were alleged to have ordered some of the gorilla poachings in the first place.

The deaths of some of her most studied gorillas caused Fossey to devote more of her attention to preventing poaching and less on scientific publishing and research. Fossey became more intense in protecting the gorillas and began to employ more direct tactics: she and her staff cut animal traps almost as soon as they were set; frightened, captured and humiliated the poachers; held their cattle for ransom; burned their hunting camps and even mats from their houses. Fossey also constantly challenged the local officials to enforce the law and assist her


 African elephant warning raised trunkAccording to the Associated Press, elephants are being killed at an alarming rate as well. “ Large seizures of elephant tusks make this year the worst on record since ivory sales were banned in 1989, with recent estimates suggesting as many as 3,000 elephants were killed by poachers, experts said…”.

"2011 has truly been a horrible year for elephants," said Tom Milliken, elephant and rhino expert for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC. “In one case earlier this month, Malaysian authorities seized hundreds of African elephant tusks worth $1.3 million that were being shipped to Cambodia. The ivory was hidden in containers of Kenyan handicrafts.

“Most cases involve ivory being smuggled from Africa into Asia, where growing wealth has fed the desire for ivory ornaments and for rhino horn that is used in traditional medicine, though scientists have proved it has no medicinal value.

“TRAFFIC said Asian crime syndicates are increasingly involved in poaching and the illegal ivory trade across Africa, a trend that coincides with growing Asian investment on the continent.

"The escalation in ivory trade and elephant and rhino killing is being driven by the Asian syndicates that are now firmly enmeshed within African societies," Milliken said in a telephone interview from his base in Zimbabwe. "There are more Asians than ever before in the history of the continent, and this is one of the repercussions."

“But the International Fund for Animal Welfare said recent estimates suggest more than 3,000 elephants have been killed for their ivory in the past year alone.

"Reports from Central Africa are particularly alarming and suggest that if current levels of poaching are sustained, some countries, such as Chad, could potentially lose their elephant populations in the very near future," said Jason Bell, director of the elephant program for the fund based in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts.

”Rhinos also have suffered: A record 443 rhino were killed this year in South Africa, according to National Geographic News Watch. That surpassed last year's figure of 333 dead rhino despite the government deploying soldiers to protect the endangered animals this year in its flagship Kruger National Park."

Read more at FoxNews.com: "Worst Year in Decades for Endangered Elephants."

Jaguars continue to be prized by hunters. “During the sixties and seventies, around 18,000 jaguars were killed every year for their beautiful coat. Formerly prized furs, such as those from the leopard, cheetah, or jaguar, may no longer be hunted in the countries where they are indigenous, and many other countries forbid their importation. The Federal Endangerment Species Act prohibits the importation and sale of these furs in the United States. In addition, special laws that protect certain North American species are enforced in the United States and in Canada, and wildlife refuges have been set up for the purpose of protecting the jaguar. The jaguar is a beautiful and graceful animal; it needs protection and conservation measures so they don't become extinct.

“The number of jaguars has declined over the last 100 years mainly because humans have slashed and burned many of their homelands in Central and South America; new cities are being built, and the forests and grasslands are being cleared. The destruction of the jaguar's habitat from logging and cattle ranching as well as having to compete with humans for food has brought a large decease in its population. One of the problems experienced by the jaguars is when the grasses that help hide them are dying because of smog problems. More jaguars are killed as the demand for their fur increases. In hunting, the jaguar is usually chased by dogs until it runs up a tree or until it is cornered on the ground; then it is shot. The Bororo Indians of Mato Grosso, Brazil hunt them with spears. When a jaguar is cornered on the ground, the hunter gets it to rush him, and then catches it on his spear as it leaps at him.”


Visit your local library to obtain resources to learn more about poaching.

Gorillas in the Mist
Dian Fossey, (1983).

Horn of Darkness. Rhinos on the Edge
Cunningham, C. and J. Berger, (1997).

Battle for the Elephants
Iain Douglas-Hamilton and Oria, (1992).
edited by Brian Jackman (Extensive discussion of the ivory trade.)

Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species
Alan Green, Center for Public Integrity, (1999).

Wildlife Wars The Life and Times of a Fish and Game Warden
Terry Grosz, (1999).

Fish, Markets, and Fishermen. The Economics of Overfishing
Suzanne Iudicello, Michael Weber and Robert Wieland, (1999).

From Forest to Pharmacy. The Global Underground Trade in Bear Parts
Peter Knights, (1996). Investigative Network and The Humane Society of the United States.

Sold for a Song. The Trade in Southeast Asian Non-CITES Birds
S.V. Nash, (1993). TRAFFIC International.

The Animal Smugglers and Other Wildlife Traders
John Nichol, (1987). Facts on File Publications.

"Worst Year in Decades for Endangered Elephants,"


Photo credits:

Male silverback gorilla in SF zoo by Mila Zinkova.

Dian Fossey: Screenshot of Dian Fossey.

Elephant in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania (raises its trunk as a sign of warning or to smell enemies or friends) by Muhammad Mahdi Karim.

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