What Is Poaching? An Overview

Simply put, it is the illegal taking of wildlife.

White Rhino (Ceratotherium sim) Horns with Game Ranger. Hluhluwe Umfolozi Park, KwaZulu Natal Provin
Daryl Balfour / Getty Images

Poaching is the illegal taking of wildlife, in violation of local, state, federal, or international law. Activities that are considered poaching include killing an animal out of season, without a license, with a prohibited weapon, or in a prohibited manner such as jacklighting. Killing a protected species, exceeding one's bag limit, or killing an animal while trespassing is also considered poaching.

Key Takeaways: Poaching

• Unlike hunting, poaching is the illegal killing of wildlife.

• One of the most common drivers of poaching is the desire for rare animal products such as ivory and furs.

• Poaching does not necessarily involve the killing of threatened or endangered animals. Any animal can be poached if it is killed unlawfully.

People who poach do so for a variety of reasons, including for food, pleasure, medicines, leather, trophies, bones, and more. In some areas, such as China, poaching is driven by demand for highly valued animal products such as ivory and furs. In other places, poaching is driven by poverty or disregard for hunting regulations.

One example of poaching is the taking of eggs from the nests of loggerhead turtles. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, loggerheads arrive on Florida beaches in April and continue to arrive and lay eggs through September. Anyone caught stealing these eggs and convicted may be sentenced up to five years in federal prison and/or required to pay a $100 or higher fine per egg.

Effects of Poaching

Poaching introduces a number of threats to both human and animal populations, and these are not limited to rare, endangered, or large animals.

Population Decimation

One of the most dangerous and lasting effects of poaching is the decimation of native animal populations. When a certain animal, such as the African elephant, is targeted by poachers, it can take decades for the animal's population to recover. This, in turn, affects the ecosystem to which the animal belongs. A reduction in predators like tigers, for example, may cause prey populations to grow out of hand, while a reduction in fruit-eating mammals may affect seed dispersal, altering the fauna of an ecosystem.

Demand for elephant ivory has had negative effects in sub-Saharan Africa, where poaching has increased since the early 2000s. Between 2011 and 2015, for example, poachers killed 90 percent of elephants in some locations. In 2018, nearly 90 elephants were found dead near a sanctuary in Botswana, which had recently ended a strict anti-poaching policy. There were a few million elephants living in Africa in the early 1900s, but today there are believed to be fewer than 400,000.

Africa's lion populations have also been affected by poaching. Since 1993, they have been reduced by 42 percent, and the species is now "vulnerable to extinction." Much of the decline is the result of human territorial expansion and habitat loss (which reduces access to prey), but it is also a result of poaching and commercial hunting. Prior to colonization, the population of lions was estimated to be about 1 million. But by 1975, there were only about 200,000 lions living in Africa. As of 2017, scientists estimate that only about 20,000 remain.

Poaching does not only affect wildlife. Park rangers and game wardens are also victims of violence. From 2009 to 2018, 871 rangers have been killed by poaching related activity.

Global Health Risk

Another lesser-known effect of poaching is an increase in global health risk. The illegal wildlife trade puts humans in contact with pathogens they might not otherwise experience. As the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime explains, "Wild animals would not pass on these pathogens to humans if we didn’t bring them to our cities, markets and shops. Illegally sourced wildlife traded in a clandestine way escapes any sanitary control and exposes human beings to the transmission of new viruses and other pathogens."

Common Animals

One of the misconceptions about poaching is that it must involve endangered animals. This is not the case. In North America, for example, poaching can involve animals as common as lobster. The big event known as "mini lobster season" takes place every summer in the Florida Keys. During that time, which precedes commercial lobster season, anyone can take to the water and snatch a spiny lobster from its "hide hole" and toss it in a cooler. When it comes time to head back home, though, officers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are sometimes present to inspect the catch.

When an officer does an inspection, he uses a standard measuring device. Placing the lobsters side by side on a table, he measures each one in the legally prescribed manner, placing the device on the lobster's carapace to check the size. That state puts a minimum of 3 inches on the size of each lobster that can be taken during "mini lobster season." The penalty for taking a lobster larger than 3 inches is a serious one: "Upon a first conviction, by imprisonment for a period of not more than 60 days or by a fine of not less than $100 nor more than $500, or by both such fine and imprisonment."

Many state wildlife management agencies have hotlines that the public can call to report poaching. It's not always someone in uniform who will catch you, either—there are undercover cops everywhere.

Hunting Versus Poaching

Unlike poaching, hunting—the killing of wild animals for food or sport—is protected by law. In the United States, meat and sport hunting regulations vary from state to state. For example, in Montana, general deer hunting season takes place for about five weeks between mid-October and late November. Hunting without a license or out of season is not permitted and is therefore considered a form of poaching.

Hunting regulations ensure that hunting is done safely and responsibly, without causing harm to threatened or endangered species and without affecting commercial and recreational activity.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Is poaching illegal everywhere?

    Poaching is, by definition, the illegal hunting and capturing of wild animals.

  • Why do people poach?

    People poach for food, medicine, leather, trophies, high-value bones, and other reasons. One major problem is that animal products like ivory and fur are worth so much globally.

  • Which animals are most affected by poaching?

    Some animals most associated with poaching are the African and Indian elephants, black rhino, Amur leopard. pangolin, leatherback turtle, orangutan, and tiger, though there are many other species suffering from illegal hunting.

  • What's being done to stop poaching?

    Even though the United Nations has long stressed the importance of ending poaching, there currently exists no international anti-poaching authority. Each region has its own efforts: In South Africa, where poaching is rampant, Kruger National Park dedicates $13.5 million annually to field rangers, dog trackers, and helicopters searching for signs of poaching.

View Article Sources
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  7. "New Survey Finds One in Seven Wildlife Rangers Have Been Seriously Injured in the Line of Duty Over the Past Year." World Wildlife Fund.