Are poachers really the bad guys?



The word poacher is a horrible word. It carries with it images of slain rhinos, piles of ivory, and smuggled AK47s. Even if it described something far more pleasant, such as a coastal walk in the summertime, it still sounds horrible.


Its phonetics are surely part of the reason. But what does it actually mean? “A pan for cooking eggs” is the first definition from the Oxford English Dictionary. More relevant to this article is the second definition: “A person who hunts or catches game or fish illegally”.

By you reading this, I’m assuming that you’re not in a very remote area of the world with few electronic devices and no internet. Given this, and that 55% of the world are urbanised, it’s safe to assume that you are in some sort of large town or city, where the meat you consume, if any, is domesticated – potentially even the fish. The thought of killing a domesticated animal (a non-human one that is) is often met with repulsion, particularly in the Global North; it is, after all, not necessary first-hand in order to eat one. Some people in this demographic do hunt for food, though this is largely a leisure activity rather than for essential sustenance.

In the Global South however, it is a very different story. The rainforests of Central Africa, for example, directly support 75,000,000 people. Local forest communities rely on an assortment of wild fruits, honey, yams, nuts, and seeds. Some villages practice small-scale cultivation, growing banana, cassava, cacao, pineapples, plantains, and macabo to sell as well as to eat. A small number of livestock may also be kept, goats, pigs, and chickens, though this is very non-intensive with the animals wandering around the village-forest interface feeding on scraps, local plants and insects. The meat of wild animals is considered superior to that of domesticates, and hunting or trapping in the forest is a normal activity.

Indigenous hunter-gather peoples co-inhabit this area relying heavily on forest products for their sustenance, their villages or camps are mostly free of domestic animals and cultivated crops. To view the hunting practised by Bantu farmers, and more so indigenous hunter-gatherers, as simply a form of subsistence is inadequate. Hunting is deeply ingrained into culture, so much so that many hunter-gatherer groups in the Congo Basin do not differentiate between the health of the community, and the health of the forest. This has led to the formulation of strict taboo systems based largely on the interaction of people with wild animals; Mbendjele hunters of northern Congo will not hunt if their wife is pregnant, or will temporarily close an area of forest from human activity until it returns to good health (see Lewis, 2008 for more). Such a taboo system also dictates what species can be hunted – other great apes (chimps, gorillas, and bonobos) are considered too similar to humans to hunt, and though forest elephants are hunted, juveniles and pregnant females are avoided, the meat from one adult male feeding so many people that sometimes entire camps are relocated and weeks-long religious rituals are conducted to celebrate this rare and special occasion.

Such harvesting of wild meat by hunter-gatherers of our species has been ongoing in Central Africa for at least 50,000 years, but now, for the first time, a proportion of it is illegal. The causes behind such restrictions are the endless demands from outsiders – metals and minerals for electronics; wood for furniture and paper; palm oil for food and domestic products; bushmeat for export to urban centres; and animal parts such as ivory or pangolin scales for the illegal wildlife trade. All of these things are greatly degrading the biodiversity of Central Africa’s rainforest, and correspondingly the cultural diversity too.

The labelling of indigenous forest community members as ‘poachers’ based on their small-scale harvesting for sustenance is preposterous, particularly because the causes behind species deterioration is not local subsistence harvesting but rather the unsustainable demand from people outside the forest (see Lewis, 2016). The majority of wild meat harvested for consumption by local communities is not illegal, but with the acceleration of the international illegal wildlife trade, exacerbated by logging and mining activity opening up previously inaccessible areas of forest, some members of marginalised local communities are becoming involved in the illegal traffic themselves. The Baka, with whom I work in Cameroon, have an intricate connection to their forest: they are born in the forest and repeatedly describe it as their mother and father. Overexploiting the forest’s resources, particularly the charismatic species involved in trafficking, is a foreign idea and undesirable, yet such communities are themselves being exploited to assist local elites in their search for elephant ivory, pangolin scales, pet chimpanzees, or gorilla bushmeat.

Violence is often used to force indigenous community members to act as guides into the forest, or to hunt and return the desired goods. On other occasions these communities are tempted into it through promises of alcohol, drugs, or money. Having been forcibly evicted from living nomadically in the forest, the Baka have found themselves deposited at the bottom of the capitalistic system, and now branded as ‘poor’. As a result, money, alcohol, and drugs become far more appealing. A result, again, of outside influence.

Targeting local indigenous communities, and economically poor Bantu farmers, in anti-poaching operations will not be effective; as long as the drivers to engage in this activity exist, the post will always be filled. Furthermore, as Leejiah Dorward and Paul Barnes summarise in their excellent article, treating communities as criminals is likely to only further the divide between locals and conservationists, when what’s desperately needed is collaboration. These so-called ‘poachers’ are not the bad guys. The real drivers behind the illegal wildlife trade here are local urban elites commissioning trafficking with crooked government officials, the international smugglers, and the consumers. In the end it boils down to two overarching issues: corruption and demand. And neither of these emerge from forest communities.

Image 1: Bartering at Gross-Friedrichsburg, today Ghana. Rutger van Langervelt (1690)
Image 2: Baka men, Cameroon. The author (2017)

With thanks to Jerome Lewis for edits


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