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Book review: Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking, by Rachel Love Nuwer

I put off reading Poached for a long time and I didn’t have to. I should have read it earlier. A book on animal trade by a New York Times and National Geographic writer who went undercover and traveled the world to visited prisons, secret breeding facilities, poachers, and every corner of the trafficking trade […]

I put off reading Poached for a long time and I didn’t have to. I should have read it earlier.

A book on animal trade by a New York Times and National Geographic writer who went undercover and traveled the world to visited prisons, secret breeding facilities, poachers, and every corner of the trafficking trade might make me cringe with reports of cruelty and gore.

Out of fear, I waited but didn’t need to.

While trafficking is cruel and seems near hopeless, we care. Most of the world supports and honors laws protecting species from extinction, pain, and violence. We don’t want needless suffering whether by humans or not. If it happens, though, we want to know, to do something about it.

In Poached, Rachel Love Nuwer bridges the gap with persistent, thorough, new, and deep investigative reporting and spirited writing, and characters we could otherwise only imagine. She takes the subject seriously, as well as her obligations to report, but not herself too much. She keeps herself humble and the writing lively, often surprisingly funny.

A short list of scenes and characters she shares includes conferences on wildlife trade, trappers, hunters, breeders, thieves, scoundrels, heroes, prostitutes, British Princes, American Presidents, African Kings, Chinese dictators, movie stars, superstar athletes, mercenaries, billionaires, casinos, drugs, guns, trading votes, helicopters, pangolins, tigers, elephants, zebras, snakes, frogs, sharks, the UN, National Geographic, China, Vietnam, Laos, South Africa, Chad, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and, of course, the United States.

One of the book’s most appealing passages comes when she disguises herself to access a gambling resort hiding who-knew-what animal cruelty for its rich, connected clients often above local law:

Even my editor at the New York Times, who had commissioned a story about tiger farming, called me for a safety pep talk: “If you feel like you might be in danger, I want you to leave. I don’t want to give the impression that we’re sending freelancers to places where their lives might be at risk.”

I assured him I would heed that warning. On that note, I packed up my hidden camera watch and whore clothes, took a deep breath, and headed to the airport.

Her dedication and resolve engage you. Anyone willing to meet poachers in their territory amid arms traders, drug dealers, and prostitution and write about it must have stories worth reading. Nuwer does.

Her innocence keeps you. She wants answers to the questions we do but are too scared to ask or don’t have the resources to answer.

You’ll wonder at the people she met, the access she gained, and the risks she took. And the adorable descriptions of the coveted and disappearing creatures, as well as her face-to-face meetings with near-fantastical beasts, or letting rescued ones free. She makes the controversy come alive—not as simple as you’d guess—with the stories from prisoners and entrepreneurs.

Rachel Love Nuwer

The main emotions she paints with aren’t revulsion or shock. This passage in Part 1 filled me first with indignation and outrage, but ultimately recognition. Demand isn’t driven entirely by monsters because we’ve heard people speak similarly about countless issues:

Despite all these newfangled uses, rhino horn remains a popular traditional remedy for everything from fever to measles to epilepsy. That it doesn’t actually work well or at all for any of these things doesn’t seem to matter; the placebo effect can be powerful. [Vietnam director of the nonprofit Animals Asia Tuan] Bendixsen, for example, has met plenty of rhino horn users, including ones with college degrees, who swear by it. For example, when his father-in-law fell ill recently, he spent a lot of time at the hospital and often chatted with other visitors in the shared ward. One woman told him that her oldest son had once come down with a bad fever that Western medicine could not cure. Hearing about her desperate situation, a friend gave her some rhino horn. Within half an hour, she said, her son’s fever had broken. “I understand what you’re saying about wildlife products and protection,” she told Bendixsen. “But if my son or daughter gets a fever again, I will use rhino horn.”

Overhearing them, another woman in the ware suddenly chimed in: “My uncle had stomach cancer, and the doctor sent him home to prepare for death. A friend gave him rhino horn, and a year later, he’s still alive. Explain that!”

Bendixsen admitted that he could not.

“This is why we’re losing,” he told me, sighing. “I was sitting in a ward with six people—just normal people—and two of them have used rhino horn. If you say you used it and it worked, then that’s a thousand times stronger than any study showing whatever non-effect.”

While she may not hit us with shock and gore, she doesn’t let us off with claims to be passive observers. Too many others in the book do. We aren’t helpless, nor ignorant, as we know. We have power and can exert it, but we have to acknowledge our abdicating our power so far to act on it.

International pressure might be the best tool for persuading China to change its mind, but the situation is handicapped by an awkward fact: the United States is home to some 5,000 captive tigers, none of which serve any conservation purpose. Those animals are largely kept as pets in private zoos, backyards, basements, and even truck stops around the country, and their existence compromises the Americans’ negotiation pull.

“When fingers are pointed at China about their tiger farms, they point the finger back at the United States and say, ‘They have as many tigers as us, why are you not criticizing them?’” said Leigh Henry, a senior policy advisor at the World Wildlife Fund. “Definitely the majority of focus needs to be on the farms in Asia, but the US would have a stronger voice in this matter if we’d already cleaned up the situation in our own back yard.”

Should the United States work together with China and propose a mutual closure of domestic live tiger trade, China might be more keen to strike a deal, agreed Yannick Kuehl, former TRAFFIC’s East and South Asia regional director. “One of the reasons the ivory ban was a success was because the US closed its market as well, so China didn’t feel pushed against the wall and labeled the bad guy of the world,” he said. “The same could be done for tiger farms.”

If we don’t acknowledge our passivity, it’s checkmate from them—those who would use rhino horn, pangolin scale, or bear bile until the last of the species die. Poached forces us to see ourselves silencing ourselves with similar choices. We compromise ourselves by using plastic, SUVs, unnecessary air conditioning, jet-setting about the globe at our whims with flights that violate the IPCC recommendations we criticize a populist president for abandoning. As much as we subconsciously want ignorance bliss, our maturer selves want to know when we, personally, have abandoned our values and polluted more than our share.

That is, our passivity hurts ourselves and makes us complicit, In showing the humanity of the many sides of animal trafficking, Poached reveals ourselves. Yes, there are monsters, but also people as human as you and me. How can we influence them if we are not open to influence ourselves? How can we improve ourselves if we don’t face ourselves?

Ultimately, traffickers, poachers, and others we call “others” can escape legislation and prosecution with teeth by pointing out our cultural transgressions that we don’t see. An obvious solution is for the U.S. is to practice what we preach—an obvious solution for all of us. Yet a majority of us insist that we can’t avoid eating meat that is likely factory farmed. We claim we have to fly for our jobs, yet say others must change their jobs.

We read books to learn about our world and others, but most importantly ourselves. About ourselves, if we look deeply, we see our accepting of factory farms, population growth, territorial expansion, extinctions our culture has caused, extinctions our culture continues to cause, and responsibility we could take.

Poached is about humans. It’s about us.

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