October 21, 2013
Wildlife Poaching in Africa: Overview for Congress
Wildlife poaching has been a longstanding challenge for
many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, a poor region rich in
biodiversity. Recent large-scale poaching activity is
affecting the sustainability of elephant and rhino
populations. Trafficking is fed by high demand for ivory
and rhino horn in Asia, and proceeds may fund armed
groups. These trends have contributed to growing
international concerns about the problem and a desire by
some in Congress to reexamine existing approaches to
combating wildlife crime.
African Elephants. The African elephant population is
estimated to be between 420,000 to 650,000. Most known
populations are located in Southern and Eastern Africa,
where some countries report increasing elephant
populations. The most significant recent elephant declines
have occurred in Central Africa, a region that suffers from
ongoing security challenges and limited law enforcement.
In total, some 25,000 African elephants or more may have
been illegally killed in 2011 alone.
Black and White Rhinos. At the end of 2010, the black
rhino population stood at 4,880 and the white rhino
population totaled 20,165. In the mid-1990s, the black rhino
population was roughly half as large and the white rhino
population roughly one-third as large.
Conservation gains were largely the result of initiatives
from South Africa—home to some 40% of black rhinos and
90% of white rhinos. However, 668 rhinos were illegally
killed in 2012 in South Africa alone, a record since
authorities first began tracking such information in 1990
(see Figure 1). Rhino poaching trends appear to be driven
primary by surging demand for horns in Asia.
Figure 1. Rhinos Poached in South Africa
Selected Elephant Poaching Incidents
Bouba Njdida National Park (Cameroon): In early 2012,
poachers on horseback traveled from Chad to kill at least
several hundred elephants, devastating the park’s elephant
Tikem (Chad): More than 80 elephants, including 33 pregnant
females and 15 calves were poached in a raid reportedly
conducted by the same group on horseback from early 2012.
Garamba National Park (Democratic Republic of
Congo): At least 22 elephants were killed over a short period
in 2012. Many were reportedly killed in a manner consistent
with aerial head-shots, possibly from a helicopter.
Minkébé National Park (Gabon): The Gabonese
government issued a report in early 2013 stating that more
than 11,000 elephants (about two-thirds of park’s population)
had been killed since 2004.
Hwange National Park (Zimbabwe): Poachers poisoned
water wells with cyanide in mid-2013, killing potentially more
than 300 elephants.
These trends could threaten the sustainability of African
elephant populations, as well as conservation gains since
the 1980s, a period when conservationists estimated that
poachers killed as many as 100,000 elephants per year. At
that time, the international community banned the
international trade in new ivory. Observers widely attribute
this policy response as having curbed the scale of ivory
trafficking and allowing some populations to recover.
Source: CRS compilation of UN and CITES data.
*Note: 2013 statistics current as of October 11, 2013.
The international community has established a global
policy framework to regulate and sometimes ban exports of
selected species, in order to support sustainable
conservation, effective resource management, and
enforcement of relevant laws and regulations.
International Responses. The flagship international
mechanism to control wildlife trade is the 1975 Convention
on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild
Fauna and Flora (CITES). 178 states, including the United
States, are parties to CITES. Through it, approximately
5,000 animal species and 29,000 plant species are subject to
trade restrictions, depending on the extent to which they are
at risk of extinction.
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Wildlife Poaching in Africa: Overview for Congress
African elephants, for example, are generally prohibited
from international trade. A limited number of elephants
from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe
may be hunted for the purposes of noncommercial export of
personal sport trophies. Similarly, all rhino species are
subject to the strictest bans on international trade, with the
exception of white rhinos from South Africa and
Swaziland, for which limited trade in live animals and the
export of hunting trophies are permitted.
Who are the poachers? A mix of illicit actors are involved in
poaching elephants and rhinos, including local subsistence
hunters, professional poachers, and off-duty security forces.
Some reports suggest that certain non-state armed groups are
involved in poaching, including the Sudanese janjaweed in
Darfur, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Central Africa,
and the Al Qaeda-linked Somali insurgent group Al Shabaab.
Poachers may also include members of some African militaries.
Poachers, however, represent only one link in a complex web
of transnational criminals who are capable of sourcing largescale volumes of illicit wildlife products to consumer markets
How much is the illegal wildlife trade worth? The U.S.
government estimates that the illegal trade in endangered
species is worth at least $7 billion to $10 billion annually. A
pound of raw ivory can be worth as much as $1,000, while a
pound of rhino horn can be worth as much as $30,000.
Why does poaching persist? Wildlife trafficking is largely
driven by the prospect of economic profit and a sense that the
risk of detection is likely low. A wide range of security,
governance, and environmental management challenges are
associated with protecting wildlife. Additionally, inconsistent
national and local laws relating to wildlife prohibitions can be
exploited by traffickers. Long-term structural conditions of
conflict, corruption, poverty, demand, lack of public awareness,
as well as other environmental pressures can contribute to
What are the consequences? Large-scale poaching reduces
biodiversity and may eliminate “keystone” megafauna that are
crucial for ecosystem health. Poaching can affect the national
economies of some countries, particularly in Africa, that are
reliant on ecotourism as a source of government revenue.
Profits from wildlife trafficking can sustain non-state armed
groups and criminal organizations that undermine the rule of
law and regional security. Poachers have also killed park
rangers and game wardens, who may interfere with their
of State, U.S. Agency for International Development
(USAID), and Department of Justice.
Recent public announcements and actions from the Obama
Administration include the:
Planned FWS destruction of the U.S. ivory stockpile
(initially anticipated for October 2013);
Establishment of a presidential task force on wildlife
trafficking (September 2013);
Issuance of Executive Order 13648 on combating
wildlife trafficking (July 2013); and
Release of a State Department and USAID Strategy on
Wildlife Trafficking (November 2012).
Congressional Role. The U.S. Congress has played a role
in evaluating and shaping U.S. policy to combat
international wildlife trafficking. In recent years, Congress
has also held hearings and events that have addressed the
growing problem of wildlife crimes and raised key
questions for next steps. Continuing questions for
policymakers include whether existing policy responses are
relevant and achieving sufficient progress; whether legal
tools and authorities are over- or under-utilized to respond
to wildlife trafficking; and whether new programs,
resources, funding, and authorities are warranted or
For more information, see CRS Report RL34395,
International Illegal Trade in Wildlife: Threats and U.S.
Policy, by Liana Rosen and Pervaze A. Sheikh; and CRS
Report RL32751, The Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES),
Background and Issues, by Pervaze A. Sheikh and M.
Liana Rosen, email@example.com, 7-6177
Pervaze A. Sheikh, firstname.lastname@example.org, 7-6070
Alexis Arieff, email@example.com, 7-2459
Lauren Ploch Blanchard, firstname.lastname@example.org, 7-7640
U.S. Responses. The United States addresses the
international illegal wildlife trade through domestic law
enforcement, as well as through foreign policy. U.S. efforts
to prohibit aspects of the wildlife trade are addressed
through the Lacey Act and its amendments, the Endangered
Species Act of 1973, and several other conservation laws,
collectively referred to as the Multinational Species
Conservation Acts (including the African Elephant
Conservation Act and the Rhinoceros and Tiger
U.S. agencies involved in anti-poaching efforts in Africa
include the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Department
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