A few weeks ago a conservation group reported discovering the carcasses of nearly 90 elephants, stripped of their tusks, near a wildlife reserve in Botswana. The country had until then enjoyed a reputation for protecting its wildlife, even if that meant shooting poachers on sight. But earlier this year its government moved to strip park rangers of their military-grade weapons; they’d killed so many poachers that neighboring countries pushed back.
Almost without question, those tusks from Botswana were destined for Asia. After a two-decade period in which worldwide bans depressed markets for ivory and rhinoceros horn, allowing wild populations to recover, a new wave of mass poaching has emerged, powered by rising incomes in China and Southeast Asia and a tightening trade nexus between Africa and China. In 2006, about 60 black or white rhinos were poached for their horns in Africa; in 2015 it was some 1,300. (An estimated 30,000 rhinos remain worldwide.) Savanna elephants saw a decline of 30% between 2007 and 2014, losses now amounting to about 8% a year.
By Rachel Love Nuwer
Da Capo, 374 pages, $28
In 2010 Rachel Love Nuwer was in Vietnam, conducting scientific fieldwork on the exploitation of forests, when she learned that the country’s sole surviving Javan rhino had been killed by a poacher who “took aim, shot her through the leg and hacked off her horn—most likely while she was still alive,” Ms. Nuwer writes. “As the culprit absconded with his prize, Vietnam’s last rhino laid her head down in the mud and died.”
It turned out that Ms. Nuwer had a front-row seat on the resurgence of an industrial-scale illegal trade. In “Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking,” the author does not infiltrate a smuggling network, as the subtitle implies. Rather, she delivers dispatches from the Asian countries buying ivory and rhino horn, as well as from Africa, where conservationists and governments struggle to defend remaining stocks against sophisticated and violent adversaries.
Ms. Nuwer explores the demand side first, with a visit to a Vietnamese pangolin hunter who’s helped deplete his own region of the scaly, anteater-like mammals, causing African pangolins to come under pressure. Friends in Ho Chi Minh City take the author to a bushmeat restaurant where no one makes any bones about the fact that illegal pangolin is quite literally on the menu, “splayed out on a plate in a morbid belly flop.” Ms. Nuwer later dines with a local businessman who brings along his chunk of rhinoceros horn, a piece he says is worth $5,000, and has it ground up in front of her before professing that extinction is the natural order of things.
Rhino horn, made of a chemically inert keratin like fingernails, has enjoyed a recent vogue among young Vietnamese businessmen as a hangover prevention (they grind it and drink it with water). It’s also gained repute as a last-ditch cancer treatment. Users of wildlife-derived medicines—which include pangolin scales, tiger and lion bones and bear bile—express an almost religious faith in their efficacy. In Vietnam and China, younger generations’ embrace of these remedies, along with old-fashioned luxuries like ivory, may also reflect a type of nostalgia, Ms. Nuwer writes, a way of “tapping into old traditions.”
It also spells danger and suffering, for humans and animals alike. In Zambia, Chad and South Africa, park rangers are forced to kill or be killed and to carry weapons of war. Animals die unthinkably cruel deaths: “[a]ny trace of respect or humane treatment is forgotten,” Ms. Nuwer writes. Poachers “have sliced open pregnant rhinos to extract their unborn fetuses and hack off their tiny horn stumps.”
Is the solution to be found on the demand side or the supply side? With African elephants and rhinos, the international conservation community favors trade bans and fierce law enforcement around parks, alongside campaigns aimed at reducing demand in Asia. But a vocal minority in Africa wants to see sustainable use of some animals, notably rhinoceros, whose horn can be sheared off every couple of years. (In the case of ivory there is no “sustainable” harvest, because tusks are living teeth.)
Ms. Nuwer meets a South African rhino rancher, a man with 1,400 of the beasts on his estate, who lets her observe his staff sawing the horn off a tranquilized female. South Africa, under pressure from ranchers like these, recently agreed to permit domestic sales of horn, though there is no internal market for the stuff. It’s a foregone conclusion that it all gets to Asia, in contravention of a ban in place since 1977. Feeding that demand with lawfully harvested horn, the ranchers and their advocates insist, is more practical and less condescending than trying to persuade people in Vietnam to stop.
Elsewhere in Africa, Ms. Nuwer interviews seasoned rangers and trackers, often ex-military, who are tasked with protecting wildlife on reserves bigger than many American states. Some have reversed devastating trends in just a few years by boosting intelligence gathering around the parks, purging corrupt rangers and making daily surveillance flights. They’ve also belatedly come to the conclusion that if you stop treating local people like third-class citizens while foreigners sleep in four-figure-per-night tents, they’re less likely to aid poachers, or become them. In one Chad park rangers are now heavily armed, but Chad nationals may visit for free.
Sometimes simple gestures—assuring proper food and gear for rangers, or insurance for their families if they are hurt or killed—can have important benefits. But these don’t necessarily appeal to foreign donors, who like to provide drones and other splashy forms of aid.
Money matters in conservation at this scale, but money isn’t enough. That same park in Chad saw its elephant population reduced by 90% between 2002 and 2010, despite $1 million a year in funding from the European Union. Replacing its hapless management with a sharper team from a South African NGO saved it.
“Poached” describes all kinds of heart-wrenching and harrowing moments, but Ms. Nuwer often strikes a lighthearted tone, finding eccentric detail to splash in. She interviews a notorious Thai rhino-horn smuggler in a South African prison, who agrees to meet primarily out of loneliness (“My money gone, my Hummer gone,” he whines). She dresses up as a Russian prostitute to get a glimpse of tiger-bone wine at a Chinese casino in Laos (neither necessary nor advisable, but she has fun). The result is more a frenetic slideshow of the trade than a rigorous, comprehensive analysis. But by focusing on the humans at all points of the trade, Ms. Nuwer is able to offer something rare: a window onto the feelings and beliefs that drive it.
—Ms. Smith is the author of “Stolen World: A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers and Skulduggery.”