Conservationists Split on How to Curb Poaching

Elephants and other exotic animals are often targeted by poachers. But conservationists do not agree on how to keep the animals alive. Some say big well-funded anti-poaching teams are the only answer. Others say those patrols are waste of time and money. A study in Science magazine may help settle that argument.

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The animals that live in Africa's big game parks have been targeted by poachers for a long time, but wildlife experts don't agree on how to keep those animals alive. Some say big, well funded anti-poaching units are the answer. Others say those patrols have been a waste of time and effort.

As NPR's John Nielsen reports, a new paper in the journal Science may help settle this argument.

JOHN NIELSEN: For several years now, Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington has been studying anti-poaching efforts in Tanzania's Serengeti Park. This park is famous for its elephants and rhinos and infamous for its poachers. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, poachers killed more than a million animals here. Then anti-poaching teams were beefed up by the government. Ever since, the number of arrests recorded every year has risen more or less steadily.

Now critics say these numbers show that the patrols weren't working, says Hilborn. They argue that the number of poachers in the park must have been going up every year.

Mr.RAY HILBORN (University of Washington): They look at those numbers and they say yes, poaching is terrible.

NIELSEN: But in a new study Hilborn says the truth is just the opposite. The patrols have been highly effective. To reach that conclusion he had to take his own safari through the Serengeti, looking for 30 years worth of bureaucratic records that would tell him how much time and effort the patrols were spending on finding poachers.

For a long time Hilborn says he couldn't find enough of this information then one day he drove out to an armored building in the middle of the park.

Mr. HILBORN: The chief warden comes with this giant key, you know it sort of takes two hands. He opens up this door and he pulls it open. Creak, creak, creak, creak, creak. And the first thing I see is a rack of about 15 AK-47s lined up against the wall. And then next to that was about 50 elephant tusks.

NIELSEN: Next to that was the bureaucratic mother lode, he says.

Mr. HILBORN: This big, long, wooden crate full of old files.

NIELSEN: The crate was full of anti-poaching records and receipts that dated back to the 1970s. Hilborn and a colleague spent the next several weeks sorting through these yellowed papers, which wasn't easy because a lot of them were handwritten in Swahili.

What they were trying to do was build a different kind of trend line, one that tracked the time and effort spent over the years to catch a single poacher.

Mr. HILBORN: How many patrols were done, how many rangers there were, how much gas they had spent on all those kinds of things.

NIELSEN: What Hilborn found was that it now takes much more time and money to catch poachers than it did 30 years ago and it turns out that this is a very good thing. When anti-poaching units have to spend a lot of time looking for poachers, it means there aren't many poachers left to catch. Hilborn says the only reason the total number of poachers caught is going up in the Serengeti is because anti-poaching units there are much bigger and much more mobile than they used to be.

Mr. HILBORN: It's just totally different now. I mean, every ranger post has a Land Rover. They go out, basically almost every ranger post goes out almost every day. They've got fuel. And so it's not surprising they're catching a lot more poachers even if there's less poaching because they're just out there so much more.

NIELSEN: In short, the critics of the poaching teams were wrong, says Hilborn. Anti-poaching units in the Serengeti have reduced poaching pressure in the park.

Hilborn adds that he came up with some other useful findings after sorting through that giant crate of papers. For example, if you take away a poacher's snares and traps he's likely to quit the business rather than buy more. Locking poachers up is not quite so useful, Hilborn says, and in a way this is lucky considering the condition of the jail they're usually locked up in.

Mr. HILBORN: It doesn't actually have a fence around it and that's because poachers stole all the wire.

NIELSEN: John Nielsen, NPR News.

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