Poaching in Serengeti seems worth the risk

By: Caillie Mutterback
December 10, 2012

Zebras in the Ngorongoro Crater, a part of the Greater Serengeti Ecosystem. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Zebras in the Ngorongoro Crater, a part of the Greater Serengeti Ecosystem. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Illegal hunting in Tanzania's Greater Serengeti Ecosystem (GSE) remains a prevalent activity for local people, despite government regulation and grassroots movements to prevent it. A new paper from mongabay.com's open-access Tropical Conversation Science examines the factors that drive poachers to continue their activities, despite the high costs involved. By interviewing citizens involved with illegal hunting in the Western part of the Serengeti, they were able to identify key risks that are faced by the hunters as well as the perceived gains of a successful hunt.

The western side of the Serengeti has higher levels of illegal hunting because of the increased human population density. The researchers estimate that 52,000 to 60,000 illegal hunters live within 45 kilometers west of the GSE, and those numbers continue to grow as the population in Tanzania grows. While the factors affecting such a large population will be diverse, there are many that have been identified as recurring.

Such factors can impact both the long and short-term choices of poachers. For example, a farmer may choose to illegally hunt less often one year because a consistent income removes their need for extra food or money, but a year with excessive drought may drive him to hunt in the GSE several times a month for animals. Other factors include livestock/crop losses, costs of bridewealth for marriage (dowry), educational costs, culture, value of a resource acquired or simply a greater amount of herbivores in the area.

Because most GSE poachers use wire snares to capture wildlife, they do not necessarily control what wildlife they catch. The researchers write "even though snares often target large herbivores, unselective harvesting occurs and many carnivores such as lions and leopards are unintentionally killed in the process." Hunters also use pit traps, dogs, spotlighting, and bow and arrows to hunt silently.

The Tanzanian government has prohibited poaching in protected areas like the GSE. Patrols both inside and outside the park have the legal power to arrest poachers and grant jail time or fines to hunters; however, this method relies on the ability to catch the poacher in the act. Many poachers set up their silent wire snares in the dark of night and are unseen by the patrols. In addition, often poachers will continue to hunt even after they have been caught because their bounty is worth more than the punishment. Researchers found that 84% of their 104 interviewees saw poaching as a difficult activity: aggressive wildlife, retrieval of wildlife, concealment, hostile contact (with neighboring Maasai) and punishment upon detection are all threats that poachers face each time they choose to hunt. A third of the respondents said that they had been injured by these activities.

Prison sentences and fines are meant to deter poachers. In the research sample, however, they found that poachers averaged 0.04 days in prison for all days spent hunting and had been arrested 1.4 times over an average of 1,901 days. This means that the average poacher has a 0.07% chance of getting caught. Over half of the sample had paid a fine for poaching, which averaged $39.00. When taken into account the amount of days spent poaching, a hunter averages $0.02 worth of fines every trip, a small cry from the value of the hunted goods which often add $307 to the hunter's income.

"If the rewards poachers face are significantly greater than the financial, physical, or psychological risks involved, it is unlikely that the level of poaching in western Serengeti will decrease appreciably. Understanding the magnitude of these factors is therefore critical to understanding and predicting future success of conservation initiatives" note the researchers.

The researchers hope that increased anti-poaching enforcement will help maintain wildlife populations. But they also warn "if poverty is indeed the driving force of poaching and human population densities continue to grow, it is unlikely that such a lucrative enterprise as poaching will subside, even if significant increases in anti-poaching efforts are made." They also hope that community- and incentive-based programs will continue to grow and people will "receive and perceive tangible benefits from conservation".

CITATION: Knapp, Eli J. 2012. Why poaching pays: a summary of risks and benefits illegal hunters face in Western Serengeti, Tanzania. Tropical Conservation Science Vol.5 )4_:434-445.

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By: Caillie Mutterback (December 10, 2012).

Poaching in Serengeti seems worth the risk.