From the oceans of Southeast Asia to the killing fields of East Africa to the jungles of Latin America, poaching is an international epidemic. Every year, tens of thousands of elephants, more than 1,000 rhinos, and over 100 tigers are killed, not to mention millions of lesser-known animals. This crisis has effects that reverberate beyond species loss. Poaching devastates ecosystems that are essential for a healthy, functioning planet, and serves as a source of revenue for organized crime, often going hand in hand with the illegal weapons and drugs trade and human rights abuses.
I sat down with award-winning freelance journalist Rachel Nuwer, who reports for the New York Times, National Geographic, Scientific American, and other outlets, about her new book, “Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking.”
1.You’ve reported on poaching for nearly a decade. What sparked your passion for this subject?
I grew up sharing a household with all sorts of animals, from chickens and iguanas to hedgehogs and snakes. I also loved exploring the bayous and beaches of my hometown in Mississippi. Those early experiences created a deep, lasting empathy for animals as well as a fascination with the natural world. I can’t remember when I first heard about the mounting poaching crisis – probably sometime in high school – but I definitely remember wanting to do something about it. I originally thought I’d become a conservationist, but quickly realized that I could be more effective raising awareness about the problem as a journalist rather than trying to tackle it directly as a scientist (math is not my strong suit, but writing is!).
2. In writing this book, did you discover anything that surprised you?
Coming into this project, I thought I was pretty well-versed in the subject. I quickly realized just how wrong I was! It’s such a complex topic, and to fully understand all that’s going on today requires a history lesson in everything from traditional Chinese medicine to the decades-long battle over ivory trade. I included that essential context in Poached so that readers can understand just how we reached our current predicament – and also why the situation now is so very different and dire compared to what we’ve dealt with in the past.
3. How big of a problem is poaching? And why should everyday Americans care?
The problem is absolutely massive, impacting millions of individuals and thousands of species each year. I think many people, especially here in the U.S., would agree that the world would be a sadder, less magical place without beloved species like elephants, rhinos, and tigers. Even if you don’t think animals have an intrinsic right to be here, though, there are other reasons to care about this crisis. Over 1,000 rangers have been killed protecting species over the last decade, and many countries and communities who depend on income from wildlife tourism are suffering from poaching. More than that, we simply don’t know how many species and ecosystems we can disrupt before the impacts begin to affect our own food systems, air and water quality, crop pollination, and more. As a conservationist once told me, messing with the environment is like playing game of Jenga: you can remove a few blocks here and there, but eventually, the tower comes crashing down.
4. Is there anything we can do about this crisis?
Absolutely. One small, easy thing that everyone can do is simply to tell their friends, family, and social media followers not to buy wildlife products from protected species. If people no longer spend money on this stuff, the poaching will stop. In the meantime, we can also call or write government representatives to urge them to support this issue, and we can make donations to non-profit organizations fighting the illegal trade. I’ve even heard of kids doing amazing things to help, from organizing car washes and fun-runs to raise money for animals, and giving talks in class about the problem and solutions.