Literature Review

Poaching and Law Enforcement

            Poaching has traditionally been a matter for conservationists, rather than law enforcement (LE). Park rangers had neither the numbers, nor the means to effectively enforce conservation efforts. In addition, environmental groups tended to focus on land conservation, education, and advocacy. Some argued that enforcement was not productive because it only provided a bandage on the underlying drivers, such as poverty, the superstitious use of animal parts and cultural concepts of luxury.

            However, given the large population losses that many animal groups have sustained, so-called “band-aid” measures of enforcement may be necessary to stem extinction for targeted species. Therefore, it has become more important to examine if enforcement reduces poaching, or if it is simply a waste of limited resources.

            The environmental movement has its roots in developed nations where resources and cultural traditions support anti-poaching efforts. Developed nations have relatively strong governance where levels of corruption are low, and fines or the threat of jail have been sufficient to deter poachers. Most developed countries also have a tradition of private land ownership, which tends to incentivize long-term stewardship. Yet even with these traits in place, there has been a general tendency towards environmental degradation, to include species loss.

            Developing nations have seen much more significant poaching for a variety of reasons, including extreme poverty, land degradation that forces wild habitat to be converted to agriculture use, and long standing conflicts where both sides have used poaching to fund their troops. Poor economic conditions breed corruption, allowing any laws to be circumnavigated. Perhaps most importantly, poachers living under these conditions are unlikely to be discouraged by fines or imprisonment (Messer, 2010).

            Most environmental policy makers have focused on traditional conservation measures, spearheaded by scientists and liberal activists. The law enforcement community has often been at odds with the conservationists, due to such issues as human right’s abuses by police, and antagonism between a nation’s political leadership, and its non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Species degradation was seen as a long-term problem with a multigenerational timeline. However, several factors have shortened the timeline and stepped up the urgency surrounding this issue, including the rise of the Chinese middle class, and the strengthening of terrorist groups on the African continent. The former now have the means to purchase animal parts for medicinal or ornamental use, while the latter need untraceable ways to fund their operations.


             In 2010, a limited field research project was undertaken which suggests that relatively small, targeted enforcement can be effective. This research took place in Ghana and relied on an informal census of ivory availability in the local markets, as well as interviews with a variety of stakelholders. A significant reduction in ivory products was attributed to raids conducted by the Wildlife Division in 2008 (Martine, 2010).

            Martin believes this raid, and the greater overall enforcement presence, was the direct result of a new system introduced in 2004 that kept more accurate records of the Wildlife Division’s patrolling efforts. Between 2004 and 2009 the new management system was phased in to cover all 13 terrestrial protected areas (Martin, 2010). The program was supervised by a representative of the SNV-Netherlands Development Organization, and led to a noticeable reduction in elephant kills.


            In 1997 an analysis was done on resource allocation in Zambia used for enforcement of elephant poaching law (Jachmann and Billiouw, 1997). Although the monetary figures are dated, the method of analysis is applicable today. The data used was collected from the Central Luangwa Valley from 1988-1995. The International Ban on Ivory Sales (as part of The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, better known as CITES) had been instituted in 1989, and this study tested the relationship between increased elephant populations, and both increased enforcement, and the ban. Nine independent variables were used, including the total LE budget, and the budget allocated to performance-based salary bonuses for rangers.

            Details were provided of specific factors that could influence the elephant count, such as local increased hostilities and cross-border elephant migration. Even taking these into account, the researchers concluded that increase in population could be entirely accounted for by greater enforcement, and had nothing to do with the ivory ban.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

            Rowcliffe et al. researched the question of wildlife law efficacy in the DRC. Selecting a variety of factors (hunting in a protected area versus hunting protected animals in an open access location, the use of illegal automatic rifles versus shotguns, etc.), they concluded that legal protection had no impact on the probability that unprotected species would be selected over protected species. They compared 33 different species (both protected and unprotected) from the relatively small cane rat, to the elephant and hippopotamus.

            Animals were targeted for several reasons ranging from subsistence bushmeat to the destruction of problem animals. Therefore, the hunters involved in this study could move between the status of hunter and poacher, depending on availability and personal choice. It was not noted if any hunter in the study simply refused to poach. In this case, participants were adept at avoiding detection, and therefore penalties did not pose as a deterrent.

Protection on Paper

            Bulte and Kooten developed statistical models, which indicate that simply providing “protection on paper” does not influence poaching. They cite studies which show that both elephant and rhino decline did not halt as a result of the ban on ivory. They then went on to build a model that takes into account such factors as expected profits from poaching, government revenues from fines, and number of days anti-poaching units spend patrolling.

            This study highlights the fact that animal stock management decisions are often made based on factors having to do with re-election of the deciding authority, rather than a rational approach to long-term sustainability. Private industry often has significant influence on public decisions, and is primarily motivated by short-term gains in the market.


            Some countries have instituted “shoot-on-sight” policies that authorize rangers to immediately use deadly force when confronting poachers. A model developed by Dr. Kent D. Messer, an economist at the University of Delaware, suggests that less violent measures may not be effective given the extreme poverty endemic to regions where poaching is a concern (Messer, 2008). He tests several suggested tactics, and illustrates why they are unlikely to succeed.

            This paper points out that lifting the ban on ivory is likely to increase consumer demand to the point where it negates the predicted price increase, thereby cancelling out any gains that could be made by making poaching less lucrative. Poachers would continue to hunt, even if the price of ivory was lower, for lack of other options. Messer also shows that fines are useless, because few people have the money to pay any fine, great or small. He also believes that jail is not a deterrent, given how much can be made in just one successful hunt. Finally, he points out that poachers are usually well armed, and pose a significant danger to rangers.

            Practically speaking, shoot-on-sight appears to work. Nations that have initiated these policies (Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Nepal) have seen significant increases in their elephant populations, while other nations continue to see losses. While he does not raise this issue in his paper, the issue is further complicated by poaching that may be done by soldiers or fundamentalists, as a source of funding for arms.


            This cursory review of a few sources points to some enforcement success. However, it primarily highlights the lack of available data. Enforcement does positively impact poaching, and should be pursued where the resources are available. But each region, and even each separate game park, may need its own separate tactics to be effective.

Poaching is not a new problem. Park rangers have been employed in the fight against poaching since property rights were first enforced. But this is the first time widespread species loss has become a worldwide problem. So while we have plenty of historical precedence to draw from (e.g. English sheriffs, Scottish gamekeepers, or any feudal system that patrolled lands held by the elite), these examples may be of limited use, if only due to our more modern use of force limitations.

            There are several obvious avenues for further research. To begin with, more studies need to be done comparing enforcement success with enforcement failure, where the control case variables are more easily identified. The continent of Africa, where the bulk of large mammal poaching occurs, contains nations that can be classified as anything from failed states to functioning democracies. Differing governmental structures lead to differing outcomes, and it should not be assumed that democracy and/or free markets necessarily provide the best-case scenario. Neoliberal market forces often focus on short-term outcomes, which are not necessarily in the best interests of environmental stewardship.

            Second, comparing successful outcomes of similar law enforcement challenges may provide lessons learned that are directly applicable to poaching. For example, the so-called “war on drugs” may supply tactics for handing poaching “gangs” vice drug gangs. While shoot-on-sight rules of engagement might arguably be necessary in bush country engagement, it is clearly preferable not to kill people whose primary motivation may be escaping poverty. Although engaging drug gangs in the United States has been extremely violent, it falls short of shoot-on-sight.

            Third, contrasting effective poaching strategies in the developed world with those in developing nations could illustrate which programs require significant resources, and which can be adapted for use in places experiencing economic scarcity. There are problems which can only be addressed through money and manpower. Yet the lack of both will continue to provide an ongoing challenge for creating viable solutions. The NGO community has a body of research which points to the failure of “throwing money” at problems.

            Finally, states facing the threat of poaching usually have to contend with a myriad of security challenges, such as arms, human, and drug trafficking. It is unclear what funding mechanisms could be utilized in already cash-strapped regions. The resources that might be used to combat poaching are often earmarked for other, seemingly more pressing, concerns. But further research may help to answer this challenge.





Bulte, E. H., & Kooten, G. C. v. (1999). Economics of antipoaching enforcement and the ivory trade ban. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 81(2), 453-466.

Bulte, E. H., & Kooten, G. C. v. (2001). State intervention to protect endangered species: Why history and bad luck matter. Conservation Biology, 15(6), 1799-1803.

Byers, J. E., & Noonburg, E. G. (2007). Poaching, enforcement, and the efficacy of marine reserves. Ecological Applications, 17(7), 1851-1856.

Jachmann, H., & Billiouw, M. (1997). Elephant poaching and law enforcement in the central luangwa valley, zambia. Journal of Applied Ecology, 34(1), 233-244.

Kahler, J. S., Roloff, G. J., & Gore, M. L. (2013). Poaching risks in community-based natural resource management. Conservation Biology, 27(1), 177-186.

Martin, E. (2010). Effective law enforcement in ghana reduces elephant poaching

     and illegal ivory trade. Pachyderm, (48), 24-32.

McMullan, J. L., & Perrier, D. C. (2002). Lobster poaching and the ironies of law enforcement. Law & Society Review, 36(4), 679-718.

Messer, K. D. (2010). Protecting endangered species: When are shoot-on-sight policies the only viable option to stop poaching? Ecological Economics, 69(12), 2334-2340. doi:

Rowcliffe, J. M., Merode, E. d., & Cowlishaw, G. (2004). Do wildlife laws work? species protection and the application of a prey choice model to poaching decisions. Proceedings: Biological Sciences, 271(1557), 2631-2636.

Wasley, A., & Andrew Wasley. (2008). a green army. The Ecologist (1979), 38(5), 30.