In some of the poorest countries in the world, poachers pose an imminent threat to animals such as elephants, rhinos and tigers. Despite international efforts aimed at deterrence, the battle is coming down to one, predictable thing: money.
As prices for items such as ivory and rhino horn have risen sharply, wages for wildlife rangers have plateaued or fallen dramatically. In Cambodia, for instance, rangers’ salaries over the past few years have dropped from $100 a month to $30 a month. So when criminal poaching syndicates offer huge payoffs, many take the deal.
And according to senior conservation officials, corruption continues to rise.
"There's more money floating around now from the poachers, so it's more of a problem than ever before," Sean Willmore, president of the Australian-based International Ranger Federation, told The Guardian.
The problem is particularly acute in Tanzania, where half of the country’s elephants have been killed in the last three years. In this East African country, payoffs for helping poachers offer a far better wage than the average salary. Furthermore, corruption spreads to all levels of government. Last year, the Tanzania's minister and top officials at the Wildlife Department were fired for accepting bribes from professional hunters, as well as helping arrange the transport of 116 live animals by jumbo jet to Qatar.
With weak fines for corruption, there is little incentive to stop. Anyone convicted faces a $13 fee—well worth the risk if you make a $2,000 cut from the ivory of a single elephant.
Pratik Patel, the chief executive of the African Wildlife Trust, believes corruption rates among rangers in east Africa are close to 50 percent. While animals within the boundaries of big-name national parks such as the Serengeti don’t face major problems, the majority of animals live in areas where protection is sparse.
The growing realization is that the finances are in the poachers’ favor—a sad and dangerous position for rangers who need to feed their families.
"We want rangers to be rewarded better, but not just financially,” Willmore said. “They need respect and proper support from their governments. The governments also need to clean things up and get rid of the bad eggs."