Should We Empathize with Poachers?

piles of ivory tusks engulfed in flames

Rachel Nuwer, Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2018)

The title, Poached, appears in red letters on the bright yellow book cover, which also features grey elephants. The market for pet pangolins is growing, and these armored, toothless mammals are already the most poached animal in the world. Rachel Nuwer in her new book, Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking, wants you to understand how globalization makes pangolins and other animals more vulnerable to trafficking, even as international regulations restricting such trade have increased.

Nuwer writes with breathless urgency about some of the most poached animals on the planet: pangolins, rhinos, elephants, and tigers. Poached works to convey the immense scale of the threats against these species, and accomplishes this through interviews with people who are working to combat their extinction in roles as activists, journalists, regulators, and scientists.

Nuwer’s work introduces readers to both the market for animals and the mechanics of some types of wildlife trafficking, and then explores several proposals for new ways to tackle poaching. The first section of Poached, “Drivers of Demand,” examines what supports the demand for animals and body parts that make up the wildlife trafficking flows, namely the ways that poached animals are conceived of as food, medicine, and status symbols. Nuwer frames the issue of the market for trafficked animals as global, but she focuses mainly on Africa and Asia’s large and endangered animals that are most often poached: pangolins, elephants, tigers, and bears.

Two small cages house pangolins, small scaly creatures in the foreground. Individual snakes fill small round cages stacked to the side and on top of the pangolins, all most likely victims of poaching.

Pangolins and snakes languish in cages in a market in Myanmar, just one location in the global flow of poached animals. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In the next section, “Inside the Trade,” Nuwer follows the traffickers, activists, and regulators trying to crack down on the illegal trade in animals. These travel-based chapters are clearly Nuwer’s favorite parts of the investigation. She describes listening in on a meeting with the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crimes (CITES), watching ivory burn, and pretending to be a buyer of illicit wildlife goods in order to meet and interview sellers.

“The Saving Game” is Nuwer’s final section and the one I consider most valuable. Each of its chapters focuses on a different animal, trying to move past a simple doom and gloom story to understand how to best address poaching in context. For example, some conservationists working to fight rhino poaching are testing the idea of harvesting rhino horns every few years. Would acknowledging the demand for rhino horn and removing the horns from live animals actually better protect them? Of the three sections of Nuwer’s book, I enjoyed this last section most. It offers an introduction to innovative potential solutions to poaching, even if it’s not yet clear whether these proposals will succeed.

Would acknowledging the demand for rhino horn and removing the horns from live animals actually better protect them?

Nuwer, like me, is formally trained in conservation biology and ecology. She has a master’s degree in ecology from the University of East Anglia, England. Later, she earned an additional master’s degree in science writing from New York University. This dual training positions her well to write this book. She understands biodiversity, how endangered and threatened animals live embedded in ecosystems, and has the technical writing skills to translate and synthesize dense research for broad audiences. Poached overflows with information—Nuwer definitely did her homework—while remaining readable for non-scientists. In fact, Poached is full of so much information, that maps or other composite images showing Nuwer’s travels, species’ ranges, and wildlife trade patterns would be very welcome.

Portions of Nuwer’s research before becoming a journalist took place in southeast Asia, and she leans heavily on contacts, language skills, and ecological knowledge she developed while traveling in the region. However, as a reader, I often felt Nuwer did not empathize with the people and communities involved in the trade. As a result, it often seemed that her study could not fully examine the complicated set of circumstances that would lead groups to trade in these animals, despite international regulations. Poaching pangolins is dramatic because of the acute urgency. Yet global wildlife trafficking is also situated within the slow violence of climate change, which the book did not address. Given the links between colonialism and international ecology, Poached reminded me that UK and US-based authors writing about wildlife crime need to be careful about power dynamics and historical legacies that their books are situated within.

The cover of the Feather ThiefThinking about the distance between Nuwer and the communities she studies—and what is obscured from view in that gap—I couldn’t help but contrast Poached with Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief. Widely praised as a true-crime mystery, it also involves wildlife crime and trafficking of illegally possessed animal parts. That’s about where the similarities end. While Poached is a whiplash-inducing global sprint through four species and across several countries, The Feather Thief is an in-depth exploration of just one crime—Edwin Rist’s theft of rare bird skins from the Tring Museum. Moreover, Johnson belongs to the same fly-tying community as those who poach rare birds and buy their feathers. While he never agrees with the theft or the wildlife trade, he develops empathy for the traffickers and explores their motivation in greater depth than Nuwer does in Poached.

Ultimately, Nuwer is a pragmatist, and the most valuable contribution from her book are the chapters in which she looks closely at the practical solutions to poaching currently being considered across the globe. She clearly has her views on how these animals should be (wild, not poached) while entertaining the idea that perhaps things won’t work out that way. I would recommend the book to a curious animal-lover and would consider assigning parts of it, especially Part III: The Saving Game, as reading for a course. My only caveat is that I would pair it with The Feather Thief, or another story that explores one wildlife trafficking event in depth, so that readers can consider the complex motivations of people too often portrayed as inept or villainous in Poached. Together, these works would offer a sense of the scale and complexity of poaching while exploring new solutions to the global market for endangered animals.

Featured image: 106 tons of ivory were burned in Nairobi National Park in 2016. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Kaitlin Stack Whitney is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the Science, Technology, & Society department and Environmental Science program. A former scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency, she has worked on insect conservation as both a researcher and regulator. She is an alumna of University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Culture, History, and Environment and former Edge Effects editor-at-large.WebsiteContact.