A few years ago, I visited Uganda, where I had the extraordinary experience of viewing incredible animals in their natural state. I saw infant chimpanzees sitting on their mothers’ backs, and older chimps playing games with each other. I watched majestic male elephants lumber past me to stand by mother elephants and their babies. My party drifted on a river in small boats past hippos, the third largest land mammals in the world, shy and sweet but very territorial. I was excited to see “tree lions,” who actually climb trees in the heat of the afternoon to nap among the branches, and I’ll never forget the sight of all those beautiful giraffes feeding on the tops of the tallest trees on the savanna.
But I think what stood out most for me were the mountain gorillas. We had to climb straight up a mountainside, cutting our way through the thick vegetation with machetes, with little more than the hope of seeing one. After about two and a half hours of climbing in the sweltering heat, one of the guides turned to us with one finger over his lips and pointing to an opening in the leaves. There they were! Not one, not two, but an entire family of mountain gorillas, numbering about ten. They were going about their business, resting, eating, and staring back at us, completely unafraid. I watched as one mountain gorilla gave another some of the food he was holding in his hands. I witnessed a tiny baby gorilla nursing at her mother’s breast, and another baby clinging to its mother’s back. Two large male gorillas pounded their chests every once in awhile, not to threaten us, just to let everyone know who was in charge. I approached as close as I could to watch the mother and baby nuzzle and groom each other and play games. After about half an hour of watching us watch them, the largest male gorilla pounded his chest and disappeared back into the forest as the rest of the extended family followed. Elephants, hippos, and gorillas are vegan, you know, so if anyone still thinks you need to eat meat for size and strength, just take a look at those guys!
It breaks my heart to know that, due to poaching, fewer than 900 mountain gorillas are left on this planet. When most people think of wildlife poaching, they think about exotic animals on distant continents, but poaching and its consequences extend far beyond forests and savannas of Africa or the wilds of Asia right into your own community and even into your own home.
Poaching, the criminal hunting and killing of animals for profit, is sadly on the rise worldwide. There are many species around the world that are poached, some right here in the United States. Their mutilated corpses are used in various and ridiculous ways, often for luxury or pseudo-medicinal purposes. Here are some of the most common victims of poaching:
Elephants: Elephants are poached for their ivory, which is carved into jewelry, utensils, religious figurines, and trinkets. Elephants are often chased into hastily-dug pits or poisoned, and their faces and tusks cut off while they are still alive. Approximately 70% of illegal ivory ends up in China, where it is sold on the street for up to $1,000 a pound. Conservationists estimate that between 30,000 and 38,000 elephants are poached annually for their ivory. At that rate, elephants will be extinct in 20 years.
Tigers: Tiger claws, teeth, and whiskers are believed by the superstitious to provide good luck and protective powers. Some superstitious cultures believe their bones and eyes have medicinal value. In Taiwan, a bowl of tiger penis soup is believed to boost virility. Let’s put it this way: if you think eating a tiger penis is going to cure your problems in that department, there’s a lot more wrong with you than what you’re worried about. Tiger skins are used to make coats and handbags. Fewer than 3,500 tigers are left in the wild; like elephants and rhinos, tigers are being poached to extinction.
Rhinoceros: The most expensive items in the world are gold, platinum, and rhino horn, with rhino horn topping the list. Rhino horn can sell for nearly $30,000 a pound; gold, by comparison, is worth about $22,000 a pound. Their horns are believed to have aphrodisiac properties and are widely used in traditional medicines. Like elephants, they are driven into traps too steep to climb out of, killed, and their horns sawed off. Since 1960, the black rhino population has decreased by 97.6% due to poaching.
Tibetan Antelopes: They are poached for their fur, which is commonly used as a light wool, and is in great demand world-wide. 20,000 Chirus, as they are called, are killed each year.
Big-horned sheep: Killed for their antlers, which can fetch $20,000 on the black market.
Bears: North American black bears are slaughtered for their gall bladders and bile, another pseudo-medicinal ingredient. A black bear’s gall bladder can fetch more than $3,000 in Asia.
Gorillas: They are poached for their meat, captured for collections, and killed for trophies such as their hands, feet, skins, and skulls. Kidnapped baby gorillas, like the beautiful baby I saw in Uganda, bring $40,000 on the black market.
Lions: Another species fast disappearing, poached as trophies to prove an insecure human’s man(or woman)hood. It is estimated that 30% to 50% of Africa’s lion population has been illegally killed over the last 20 years. Last summer three poachers who broke into a South African game preserve to stalk and kill rhinos were attacked and eaten by lions, to which I say, justice was served. A few more news stories like that one might put a serious dent in poaching. I’m rooting for the lions.
Sharks: Sharks are poached for their fins, which some cultures consider a delicacy. Once caught, the fins are hacked off, and the still-living shark dumped back into the sea where it will soon die. Poached manta rays and sea cucumbers are also considered delicacies by some.
Red and Pink Coral: This is the most valuable type of coral, known for its use in jewelry and decorations. Not only does this poaching effect coral population but it also effects the population of fish and other marine life who live in and on the reefs.
Blue Whale: Blue Whales have almost been hunted to extinction. They are poached for their blubber and oil, which are then used in candles and fuel. We have plenty of other options for light and energy these days; nobody needs to kill a whale to power outdated technology.
Most poaching is done by organized crime syndicates who use high-powered technology and weaponry to hunt and kill animals without being detected. Poachers often prefer using poisoned arrows because there is not a telltale gunshot sound. A well-placed arrow can kill in 20 minutes; however, a misplaced arrow can leave an animal dying a lingering death from infection for up to a month. Poachers will often leave poison on the carcass of the prey to kill the vultures that might fly above and alert rangers.
Violent conflicts and ivory poaching are interconnected. Heavily armed militias and crime networks use ivory funds to finance terrorism and wars. Cash-starved terrorist organizations have turned to trading ivory, which the Elephant League has dubbed “the white gold of jihad.” The illegal wildlife trade nets $8 billion to $10 billion a year.
To combat poaching, in 2014 the United States banned the commercial sale of African elephant ivory. Shamefully, the ban was reversed in 2018 by a subsequent administration that cares little about protecting animals or stopping the criminal traffic in animal parts.
What can you do? Lobby your legislators to reinstate the ban and expand it to include poached animal products of every kind. Never buy ivory or coral products, whether new or used, or any other poached animal products, and boycott merchants who sell them. It’s only by making poaching less profitable that it can be reduced and the greed-fueled extinction of so many animal species reversed.