What Is Poaching?

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, and trophies. 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 nest 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 $250,000 fine.

Effects of Poaching

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 2008. Between 2011 and 2017, for example, poachers in Mozambique killed 90 percent of the country's elephants. 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 700,000.

Africa's lion populations have also been affected by poaching. Since 1994, they have been reduced by 42 percent, and the species is now "vulnerable to extinction." Some of the decline is the result of habitat ross (which reduces access to prey), but much of it is due to poaching and commercial hunting. In the early 1900s, there were 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. In Virunga National Park, an animal sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, more than 170 rangers have been killed between 1998 and 2018.

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 limit on the size of each lobster that can be taken during "mini lobster season." According to this state mandate, a "lobster with a carapace or body measuring at least 3 inches would be 2-3 years old and old enough to have reproduced at least one season." The penalty for taking such a lobster 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 vs. 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. In Montana, general deer hunting season takes place between October 20 and November 25. 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.