A black-and-white discussion of the poaching problem completes masks the real problem: that there is so little alternative economic opportunities that people who are just trying to survive are forced into poaching just to feed their families.
The articles are everywhere. In local and foreign news outlets, the dedicated lives of anti-poaching patrols in some of the world's most wildlife-abundant areas wage constant wars against poachers, who commit murders for a quick buck. By showing the aftermath of wildlife slaughters on widely circulated posters and visual reports, both public and private sources make the anti-poaching patrols out to be heroes saving the planet from shortsighted human actions, driven by unparalleled ignorance, uncontrolled want, and the massive profits to be made in the black market.
There is no doubt that the anti-poaching patrols are indeed heroes. Without them, many more species would be driven much quicker toward extinction, and the already bustling trade in valuable animal parts like ivory would multiply in size, be normalized in intent, and reduced in ethical guilt. But the singular praise for the work of anti-poaching squads roaming national parks masks a deep economic problem that lies within the countries that host those national parks: a dearth of economic opportunities force many people to become poachers, just to survive.
Contrary to what news outlets might have people believe, poachers are not bloodthirsty savages who almost seem to enjoy their lifestyle of murder and risky black market trades. Many of them would certainly not choose to risk their own lives against ever-more potent firepower of anti-poaching legions. Yet the reality is that poaching is, for many, the most economically lucrative activity available, even when considering the potentially fatal risks associated with partaking in it. If good economic opportunities do exist, then they certainly would not go through the risks and criticisms of being poachers.
The same logic applies to many others who undertake clearly illegal economic activities. The Somali pirates hijacking ships, the Afghan farmers growing poppy plants for opium production, and the South American drug traffickers all do what they do not because they enjoy seeing other people suffer but they are themselves desperate to find economic activities that can feed their own families. Where they are and come from, the highly illegal activities just happen to be the only activities that fit the bill in terms of their ability to earning a real living.
Thus, resorting to, and then praising the works of, anti-poaching squads is a Band-Aid solution to a much deeper problem. Without structural changes in the local economy, the potency of anti-poachers will only drive a arms race and a cat-and-mouse chase with the poachers, making poachers shrewder but not getting rid of them. To rid of the poachers in a much more comprehensive way, there needs to be creation of alternative economic opportunities for poachers to undertake that are equally profitable but much less risky, so that they will put down their guns aimed against wildlife.
Of course, creating economic opportunities in these locales are much easier said than done. Wildlife is poached in some of the world's least developed regions, where both private and government efforts are almost entirely lacking when it comes to create a diversified economy in which the majority of population can productively participate. Even the efforts start now, creating economic opportunities profitable enough to lure poachers away from poaching for a living will take decades. For many wildlife already endangered, that process may already be too long.
However, that process of creating alternative economic opportunities will never have the hope of ever starting if there is no public awareness to their urgent needs. To raise awareness then, the creating approach to publicizing anti-poaching efforts must change. Instead of just lauding the heroism of anti-poaching personnel, and in the process portraying poachers as evil, heartless individuals, there need to be more education of the general public on why poachers poach in the first place. The failures of the local economy to create good jobs should be the primary viewpoint from which poaching should be discussed.
As the approach of discussing the poaching issue changes, so should the role of anti-poaching personnel within the narrative. While there should still be admiration for the personal sacrifices they make in order to ensure individual elephants or rhinos are not killed, the audience should be reminded that the fact that there are so many successful anti-poaching squads roaming wildlife areas is not a sign of success in the battle against poaching, but a complete failure. Anti-poachers' skill in deterring and taking out poachers only help to exacerbate already dire economic conditions of locals forced into poaching to make a living.
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