Consider the Poacher?

» October 17th, 2013

You’ve got to love blogging. I slip into thoughtless language and call an elephant lazy. A reader gently mock-chides me for my verbal slippage. I respond with a brief commentary on a proposed Tanzanian policy to shoot elephant poachers on the spot, as a sort of humorous self-warning to watch my language. Then excitement erupts.

In regards to the shoot-to-kill policy, I suggest due process, or a version of it, rather than firing away. For this opinion I’m mistakenly characterized as a simplistic minded pacifist while readers—every single one of whom I adore—ponder the joys of killing the poachers themselves (rather than, you know, fantasizing about it in a blog comment box).

Yeah, I know I’m exaggerating a bit here, and maybe even being snide (grant me a little room for that), but the following question is serious: has anyone considered the poacher? As far as I can tell, we’ve dismissed him as a thug doing a terrible thing. Yes, in shooting an elephant for the tusk trade, he is a thug doing a terrible thing. But could he be more? Could he be a victim and a thug? And might the two be connected?

Say he’s a confused teenager damaged by a childhood of dire poverty, physical abuse, and impressment into a gang of child soldiers. Say he’s a grown man whose crops were torched and whose children are starving and whose wife is ill. Say he’s a person for whom one tusk will bring unimaginable wealth.  Such scenarios are hardly unlikely. Do we take the poacher’s past and present circumstances into consideration before we shoot to kill? Do we consider the possibility that—as often as we discuss “interlocking oppressions”—the poacher is both oppressor and oppressed?

Hence my reason for declaring that we hold our fire, at least for the moment. Yes, murdering an elephant is murdering an elephant. There is no relativism there. It’s wrong on every level. But when the man pulling the trigger could be the victim of distant or immediate circumstances that put him in that position, I think we need, at the least, to see what’s happening behind the scenes, in places we didn’t look.

39 Responses to Consider the Poacher?

  1. Mountain says:

    Consider the poacher? Absolutely. But consider the actual poacher, not some delusional image we’ve constructed. Criminals are very rarely Jean Valjean types, driven by circumstances to steal a loaf of bread. Whether you’re looking at poachers, Somali pirates, major drug dealers, or coyotes involved in human smuggling, they’re almost never the poorest of the poor. They generally come from a poor background, but there’s a lot of ambition needed to rise to that level of crime. For that matter, if you look at the biographical background of terrorists, they tend to come from families with rising incomes and expectations.

    So, we need to consider the poacher, but the solution is much more complicated than simply trying to alleviate poverty (which is complicated enough). I think we’ll always have this kind of person; the question is how to channel their ambition towards less harmful pursuits– trying to become a famous entertainer or a professional athlete, rather than a member of organized crime.

    • Mountain says:

      We know organized crime rises up to govern areas that legitimate government either fails to or refuses to govern. When Prohibition banned alcohol in the U.S., organized crime rose up to provide it (that’s where Al Capone and all the famous gangsters of the 20s and 30s came from). When gambling was generally illegal in the U.S. (before Vegas & such), the mafia provided the numbers racket– and many churches provided mild forms of gambling, like bingo. Where prostitution is illegal, organized crime provides it, typically with worse outcomes for both prostitutes and johns than in places where it is legal & regulated. America’s war on drugs has led to powerful drug cartels in Mexico and throughout Latin America, oftentimes powerful enough to subvert legitimate governments, which has left massive bloodshed in its wake (to say nothing of the environmental damage).

      So, when we arrest one drug dealer, and another one immediately rises up to take his place, we know our current approach isn’t working. When we arrest or shoot a poacher, and another one appears soon after, we know our approach to protecting elephants isn’t working. That doesn’t mean we stop using force to protect elephants, but we have to find ways to make poaching less profitable, and we need to create less harmful channels for people to pursue their ambitions. We need people to dream of being rappers instead of thugs– a fine line, perhaps, but a meaningful one.

  2. Linda Norris says:

    Game wardens are now being faced with poachers armed with automatic weapons, an elephant is killed every 15 minutes for nothing more than its tusks and are on the verge of being endangered in the wild not to mention the cruelty of leaving elephant and rhino calves without food to starve. More and more poachers are working in gangs, there is seldom a ‘lone’ man looking to feed his family. I say shoot them on sight. I feel for their family, yes. Am I heartless? Maybe so. I feel the same exact way about the people who fight dogs, roosters or any other animal. Is the guy who raises the pit bull to fight only doing it to feed his family? Maybe he is uneducated and cant find a job? Or the people who go to view these horrible things, betting on which animal will survive. Getting grocery money? I know these two things are miles apart in comparison. But are they really? The bottom line is the same. Money. I’m sorry but if a man needs to feed his family, selling ivory is not the only choice. It is his decision to do that. And you are right. I can only imagine the pure joy of putting a bullet in him myself and also the Michael Vicks of this world. We have enough cruelty and ignorance on this earth with the ungodly treatment of ag animals, the abuse of domesticated pets and children without worrying whether a poacher is oppressed, too young to know better, or came from a poor family. I’m sorry but I have no sympathy.

      • Fireweed says:

        “I’m sorry but I have no sympathy”.

        And so said the suicide bomber and every other vigilante who has used violence in the name of ‘one more war to end all wars’.

        “It is very true that poaching has taken such an alarming route and it’s obvious the government is getting worried. It’s important the punishment for poaching is a deterrent, but killing poachers is not part of the measures we have been advocating. It would lead to an escalation of violence; it’s very difficult to control who is actually killing. There are law enforcement and judicial systems and they should be made more effective.”

    • Mountain says:

      “I know these two things are miles apart”

      No, you’re exactly right. The comparison is dead-on. A person who runs a dog-fighting ring is just like the examples of criminals I listed above– typically from a poor background, but driven more by ambition than a desperate need for money. Michael Vick came from a poor background, and thus was exposed to the culture of dog-fighting, but he wasn’t doing it for the money– he was making millions every year in the NFL.

    • Mountain says:

      I would say arrest them rather than shoot-to-kill, but it does look like a non-violent arrest is increasingly difficult to pull off. Either way, arrest/shooting has to be done in the short-term, but long-term, something much more systemic has to change if elephants are actually going to be protected.

      • Jennifer Greene says:

        “Something much more systemic has to change”—thank you, Mountain.

        I wonder if some commenters here haven’t yet realized that this kind of thinking is an option available to them. So I want to lift it up again, for us all:
        Instead of thinking of the individuals as the enemy, how about letting the larger system be the target & focus for (your, my, our) passionate ire?

        I am trying to understand what it means when an activist makes a declaration like Linda’s, above. I’m thinking back to an encounter I had in 2012, when an activist told me she felt zero compassion for slaughterhouse workers. My first reaction was shock and dismay. I’m afraid those feelings probably showed on my face. I immediately regretted the judgment I was feeling, and reminded myself that I didn’t know her at all, and had no idea what might have led her to make such a comment. But it was chilling, to hear another animal activist sounding so hard-hearted and vicious.

        I can honestly say I have known only one other vegan who has expressed a similar outlook (and I’ve been vegan for over a decade now). When I knew him, he was pretty thoroughly misanthropic, and I think his own backstory and circumstances explained why he was prone to dismissing various people as “scum” who deserved violent retribution for their particular contribution to all the horrors being perpetrated by humans against other-than-humans.

        To those two vegan activists, to Linda, and to any lurkers who feel aligned with what Linda wrote, I say again: instead of thinking of the individuals as the enemy, you could try seeing the larger system as the enemy to be hated, and fought, and vanquished.

        And one last thing, especially to any nonvegans reading this: don’t forget that all is not what it seems, around the Internet. The next time you see a vicious, anti-human comment posted by an anonymous online “vegan,” you have my permission—nay, my encouragement—to suspect sockpuppetry:

        • Linda Norris says:

          My first thought was to feel like I needed to defend myself to you for labeling me as 1) vicious 2) a non-thinking being 3) a sockpuppet and a lurker (? not sure what that is). But what I will say is this. I’m sure the idea to address the bigger problem is not a new one and obviously different ways to deal with the problem has failed hence, the shoot to kill proposed law. I will not sugar coat my feelings on this to keep someone from being shocked and dismayed. The subject was put out there, and this is my feelings. Anti human? Unfair. That statement implies something that could only be said if you know me personally. Now I must go check out the internet link so I can educate myself on sockpuppetry so I can recognize it next time I see it. And I will also ponder the idea that poachers and the like are not enemies of animal lovers, that they are only misguided. Wow I never thought of myself as an activist…. sounds kind of cool.

          • Jennifer Greene says:

            Hi, Linda. I didn’t say *you* are vicious. I said that what you said above sounded hard-hearted and vicious to me. And I didn’t say you’re 2 or 3, either. (And lurker=someone who just reads, without posting.)

            From previous posts, I know you’re involved in foster work, and I salute you for that.

            I can’t tell if your last sentence is sincere or sarcastic (that’s another lesson we can all keep in mind: what a limited medium this is—it’s hard to know just how serious someone is being) but if you’re serious, then I’d say, “Well, then let’s get you thinking of yourself as an activist! The good you do for animals gets multiplied when you become an effective activist on their behalf. This is how we change the world, friend.” I’d be delighted to share with you some of what I’ve done as an activist. Feel free to message me through my meetup group,, or my facebook page,

        • James says:

          Sock puppetry. I had the same thought, I must admit. Linda, why do I end up on a yahoo site when I click your name?

          • Linda Norris says:

            Not sure what your meaning is James. But, maybe Yahoo is your search engine. Or, since the word yahoo is not capitalized in your reply, it could mean any number of things.

          • James says:

            Do I strike you as the kind of person who would use yahoo (sorry, YAHOO, or is it Yahoo?) as a search engine?

          • Mountain says:

            Thanks to Linda (and James for pointing it out), I now know who Melissa McCarthy is– I clicked on Linda’s name, it took me to Yahoo’s home page, and an article about Melissa McCarthy was up at the front. This is information I could have lived my life without.

          • Marc Bedner says:

            On the technical point, of why Yahoo comes up when you click on someone’s name, the link comes from what a contributor puts in the website line at the top of the reply form. Linda, you must have inadvertently put on that line, perhaps you use yahoo for email. The line is meant for those who maintain their own websites, e.g. I put in the address for my Peace and Justice for Animals blog.

            On the issue itself, I sometimes describe myself as a misanthrope, and never call myself a vegan. I follow a plant-based diet, primarily because as a resident of New Mexico, I do not want to support the livestock industry. But I find that veganism too often becomes a religion, more concerned with one’s individual moral stance than with helping animals. That is why I raised the question of whether veganism means pacifism. (No, James, I wasn’t specifically calling you, or anyone else on this blog, a pacifist.) I have little respect for humans in general, and none for poachers. But the question for me is not whether killing poachers would be enjoyable (I have no experience in this matter!) but whether it would be an effective way to stop poaching. Shoot to kill may not be the ultimate answer to the poaching problem, but I support the right of rangers in Tanzania to use any means necessary when defending themselves and the elephants against well-armed, well-organized poachers.

      • I would support a live capture of the perpetrators and long prison sentences as they are trying to do in Kenya, but as Mountain and others point out, arrests while sometimes out manned and out gunned is very difficult.

        For some reason this thread reminds me of the “put yourself in Sophie’s place” discussion of a while back. THAT thread generated quite a response, too, if I recall, particularly since the farmer weighed in herself and expressed no willingness to change her opinion of the exploitation she was participating in.

        Same theme, different characters, it seems. ~Linda

  3. James,
    It has been documented, with the help of DNA technologies that can track the movement of tusks and identify the source herds, that the poaching is organized by crime syndicates, political revolutionaries, and corrupt, underpaid officials. When impoverished people are drawn into this, poverty is everyone’s problem. Local officials must be convinced by their own experiences that the threat of death is a necessary tool. Whether or not anyone agrees with that policy, the rest of humanity has an obligation to the extent payable, to support with funding the agencies that are trying to stem the tide. Your foray into maladjusted youth is a cerebral exercise.

  4. Linda Norris says:

    Jennifer actually the next to last sentence was being sarcastic (sorry) I don’t think poachers are misguided. But I really have never thought of myself as an activist. The word activist immediately brings to mind PETA, whom I dislike. I will say that as much as I love animals, my favorite and most loved is the elephant. If I were younger, I would make saving them my life’s work. But at the risk of sounding heartless, some people only understand violence because that’s how they live. For a poacher to willfully kill an elephant (or rhino) knowing there is a calf nearby who will die, takes a stone heart, in my opinion. While I could get off topic and rant about abuse of all animals, this post is about poachers. Mountain said it best when he said arrest/shooting for the short term, systemic change for the future. Shoot to kill is radical. But these wonderful animals will be gone if something radical is not done in the short term. The elephants do not have time for systemic change.

    • Jennifer Greene says:

      Thanks for helping me understand what you meant, Linda. About your association of activism with PETA: that’s a good reality check for me, because you’re probably like a lot of folks that way—but contrary to your impression, there’s actually a wide, wide world of animal activism today, and PETA is only one of many organizations out there.

      I share your anguish at what’s happening to the elephants (and other animals, too).

      But for the animals’ sake, I urge you to monitor *how* you express yourself on these issues. It may feel good to type the words, “I can only imagine the pure joy of putting a bullet in him myself and also the Michael Vicks of this world.” The problem I see is this: I don’t think you were thinking about the effect those words could have on others. I don’t think you were thinking strategically when you typed that.

      For the animals’ sake, we all have to think about the impression we make on others. It’s self-indulgent not to.

      Thanks for hearing me out.

  5. As others have suggested, I think an important difference needs to me made between a shoot to kill as punishment for illegal activity, as an on-the-spot execution, and a justifiable kill done to protect the life of an officer or the elephant(s) he/she is protecting. While I do not claim to be experienced in dynamic theater operations, I have spoken to enough people who are, particularly in law enforcement. Life and death decisions have to be made in a split second while all hell is breaking loose, and that kind of decision is very different than “I think he is a poacher, so screw him.” I am actually not in favor of the death penalty, whether in a “death chamber” or in the field, but I do support the officers doing what they need to at the moment to protect life.

    As to the question posed by James re: what if elephants were not endangered, I would say look at the outrage in Japan over the slaughter of pilot whales and bottleneck dolphins, and some of those species are not endangered. For whatever reason, some species have been deemed as worthy of protection, and as our understanding of animal behavior and cognition evolves, the list of these species will grow (I hope) to include all animals.

    And solving this problem is not an either/or. The issues of violence in the field may have to be dealt with through lethal force while at the same time, the underlying issues of poverty, civil unrest, and human exploitation are handled by those equipped to do so.

    Not a pretty picture, but reality seldom is. ~Linda

  6. Kimberley says:

    Is anybody else sick of James McWilliams patronization of his adored subscribers? A while ago he accused me of being anthropomorphic. And then the other day he ridiculed me for my belief that my life has no more value than that of an elephant. Make your mind up James.
    In my world you can only be non-speciesist if you believe all sentient beings to be equal. That has to include human and non-human animals.
    I firmly believe in a shoot to kill policy as a deterrent to human animals who, if threatened with death would surely desist from killing elephants, rhinos and other animals. Personally, I would like to see a shoot to kill policy on deer hunters in Michigan too. You see James, I truly care about the suffering of all animals.

    • Mountain says:

      Hi Kimberley,

      You’re entitled to your opinion and feelings on this matter, and when it comes to emotions, there’s no clear right or wrong answer.

      That said, I re-read the last few blog posts (the elephant thread, if you will), and I don’t see how James ridiculed you. He didn’t respond to your comment, but he quoted it (among others) in the next day’s post. He definitely seemed stunned by the position you (and others) took, and arguably dismissive, but I don’t see where he subjected you (or anyone else who took the position) to ridicule.

      The great challenge of being a social animal is in not offending those you socialize with, and not taking offense at those who did not intend to cause it. True for chickens, true for humans, true for elephants.

      • Kimberley says:

        Talking of people being patronizing! you said “The great challenge of being a social animal is in not offending those you socialize with, and not taking offense at those who did not intend to cause it. True for chickens, true for humans, true for elephants”. Does this statement self-apply? What kind of reaction did you expect from such a statement? Applause from others for being so smart? Or for me to re-consider my position as a “social animal”. I guess I might not have survived in pre-industrial society as my loathing for my own species knows no depths. The difference between human and non-human social animals is that humans can CHOOSE how they interact with others. Would it be better for me to pretend that I like humans just in order to “get along” or be true to myself. I fervently hope for the extinction of human beings as that is the ONLY way that non human animals will be able to live in peace. And anybody who truly cares for animals would feel the same way unless they have some misguided notion of human dynastys.

        • You ask: “Would it be better for me to pretend that I like humans…?” If you insert “for the animals” right after “Would it be better” then I think that’s exactly the question any animal activist needs to ask herself.

          As I wrote to Linda, above: For the animals’ sake, we all have to think about the impression we make on others. It’s self-indulgent not to.

        • Mountain says:

          I see it is a great challenge not to offend you, Kimberley, and one I have failed to meet. My apologies.

          “Does this statement self-apply?”

          Of course it does. Not offending you was a great challenge, one at which I failed. But I tried! Did you try not to take offense?

          “What kind of reaction did you expect from such a statement?”

          I figured it would be: 1) a thoughtful response; 2) internet silence; or, 3) screechy sock-puppet sounds. Guess which one I got.

          “Applause from others for being so smart?”

          It happens.

          “The difference between human and non-human social animals is that humans can CHOOSE how they interact with others.”

          Social animals can and do choose how they interact with others. It’s kind of the essence of being a social animal. Do you not know what a social animal is?

          “I fervently hope for the extinction of human beings”

          Anyone who fervently hopes for the extinction of any species is not, to my mind, an ethical vegan. Maybe an unethical one. To do so is to wish the worst possible harm on an incredibly large group of sentient beings.

          Best of luck (except for that extinction thing)!

          • Kimberley says:

            So you blew my cover. Yes, I am a sock puppet. No, I am not an ethical vegan.
            Happy? Can we move on?

  7. Kimberley, if you’re sincere, how about letting us know more about you?

    Maybe you have some need to stay anonymous, but I have to admit that it’s hard for me to take comments like this seriously when I know nothing about the source.

    • Kimberley says:

      What do you need to know Jennifer? I am just a person who cares deeply about the suffering of animals. A person who is frustrated by their inability to do anything meaningful to save elephants and rhinos from extinction.

      • If you’re sincere in caring about animals, then pause to consider the possibility that your words (fueled by understandable frustration, I get that) could actually be counterproductive.

        It’s also possible that you’re a sockpuppet, in which case it would make sense for you to continue to post as you do, because your goal is not really to help animals, it’s to cause trouble for them.

        You haven’t provided any evidence that you are who you claim to be, so I am reading your comments as an open-minded skeptic. I could be wrong about you; a question for you is, could *you* be wrong?

        • Kimberley says:

          What evidence about me do you need? This is ridiculous. Sock puppet? What is THAT?
          Contact Eric Deardorff at PETA LA. He will be only too happy to tell you of my commitment to the animals and the campaigns and demonstrations thati have been involved in.
          And who the HELL are you anyway?

          • It’s actually not so ridiculous, Kimberley. I’m sorry to have angered you with my skepticism, but it’s a fact that provocateurs infiltrate movements. I’m also sorry to have assumed that you’d read my post earlier in this thread, in which I provide a link that explains “sock puppetry.”

            Thanks for providing Eric as a reference. And as for who I am, I already provided you with that information. But maybe you didn’t realize that you can click on a poster’s name to see if there’s more info? I’ve provided a link to the meetup group I run, where it’s possible to verify my identity and contact me directly, if anyone wishes to do so.

          • Mountain says:

            “Contact Eric Deardorff at PETA LA. He will be only too happy to tell you of my commitment to the animals”

            Does he know you want him dead?

          • Kimberley says:

            Mountain. Eric Deardorff is a good friend. As such he totally understands my love of animals and the planet. I am sure that he would not be in the least bit surprised to know that I pray for a mass human extinction. In fact he probably knows. Humans will be gone soon anyway. 100 years? We can not carry on like this. Continual human economic growth is only on the back of the planet’s destruction. The earth and its non human inhabitants will only have a chance of stabilizing if humans and their loony desires are gone.

  8. Elaine Brown says:

    The poacher needs to be stopped. How do we do that? Possibly by considering the poacher. I have little sympathy for but may find some empathy for the poacher depending on the poacher. But what I do desire is to stop the killing of the elephant, so perhaps I should consider the poacher.

  9. Keep in mind that the story attached to this link is “politically sanitized” in that it does not describe the depth and breadth of the slaughter of wildlife living in Africa. Giraffes, gorillas, and their ecosystems are under siege as well. I post this link because it describes some local, nonlethal response to the question of killing poachers.

  10. emily says:

    this approach seems to have had some effectiveness with shark fins:

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