Wildlife Watch

How Illegal Weapons Fuel Poaching—and Poaching Fuels the Illegal Weapons Trade

The free flow of weapons in Africa makes it too easy for poachers to arm themselves.

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The Kenya Wildlife Service displays illegal firearms and ammunition seized from poachers in 2012.


Gun control is on everyone’s minds at the moment, especially here in the U.S. Could better gun control help stop the elephant and rhino slaughter in Africa too?

A research organization in Switzerland called the Small Arms Survey recently dedicated an entire chapter in its 2015 annual report to weapons trends in elephant and rhino poaching in Africa—from which armed groups are illegally killing animals to which types of guns and ammo they prefer.

The report highlights just how closely the free flow of guns in Africa facilitates poaching, and how poaching, in turn, can facilitate the arms trade.

“The rates of poaching have increased dramatically, so we were interested in looking at some of those issues, including the role of armed groups,” said Khristopher Carlson, one of the report’s authors. “Where are those weapons coming from that’s allowing those conflicts to continue?”

Guns seized by police in Mozambique later showed up at poaching sites.
Small Arms Survey

Carlson, along with the World Wildlife Fund and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, presented the survey Monday at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the body that regulates the international wildlife trade.

Here’s what you need to know:

No one’s tracing guns. The Small Arms Survey found that weapons and ammo collected at poaching sites are rarely entered into Interpol’s firearms tracing system, even though doing so could help law enforcement track criminal networks as well as build cases against major players.

“It’s difficult,” Carlson said. “A lot of African countries do not have the capacity to carry out the types of forensic activity that is required.”

Governments need to do a better job securing seized weapons. There have been at least a couple of cases where guns seized by police in Mozambique later showed up at poaching sites. That means either the police did a pretty bad job of storing the weapons in the first place, or they actually helped leak the weapons to the poachers.

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Kenya Wildlife Service officials look at bullets and guns recovered from poachers.


It’s just too easy to get a gun in Africa. Aside from leaky stockpiles of seized weapons, there are plenty of other ways for poachers to get guns. Wealthy Sudanese businessmen have been known to provide guns, night vision goggles, and other equipment to poaching teams, the survey researchers were told. Sometimes it’s the military itself using state-issued guns to do the illegal killing. And there are plenty of people willing to trade guns for ivory. A 2015 National Geographic investigation found support for the claim that Sudan’s military trades guns to the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army in exchange for ivory, and other armed groups in Central Africa are also suspected to be trading ivory for guns.

Military-style rifles are cheaper. Large-scale poachers tend to prefer hunting rifles—with their long range and ability to take down an elephant or rhino with a single shot—the report says. But assault rifles and light machine guns are really growing in popularity, especially among the highly organized poaching groups. Military-style weapons in the vein of Kalashnikovs are cheaper (so is their ammo) and easier to come by than hunting rifles. Guns have been documented coming from Libya, Angola, Burundi, Mozambique, Sudan, and South Sudan.

More gun control? Some countries have tried to tighten their gun control laws. Mozambique, for example, made poaching fines higher if illegal firearms are involved, and South Africa punishes poachers and permitted hunters alike if they’re caught using an illegal weapon. Still, the punishments are so minor (or so rarely imposed) that they hardly scare off anyone.

Carlson came away from his research skeptical in some ways about current anti-poaching efforts. As poaching has become more militarized, so has the anti-poaching movement. The key to fighting poaching, he said, is to consider the context. Fighting large-scale poaching carried out by criminal networks is one thing, but fighting small-scale poaching being carried out by a few local members of the community is another thing entirely. Ultimately, he said, controlling the trade in small arms can help control both types.

“With a drop in violence, there becomes a safer space for people to engage in other activities,” he said.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback and story ideas to ngwildlife@ngs.org.

Follow Rachael Bale on Twitter.

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