The 2015 edition of the Small Arms Survey examines the role of weapons and armed violence in humanity’s appropriation of Africa’s wildlife and mineral riches. Poaching of elephants and rhinos is becoming increasingly militarised in the region, and near resource extraction sites around the world. The flagship publication was launched last week at the United Nations in New York.
We spoke with Khristopher Carlson, Senior Researcher at the Small Arms Survey, who explained some of the key findings.
Why did you decide to focus on armed violence and natural resources? Is it because today poachers are becoming more and more militarised? If so, how can you explain that?
The first chapter focuses on elephant and rhino poaching in Africa. We were interested in learning more about the actors involved in poaching and the types of firearms and methods they use. Following that, we also wanted to investigate states’ responses to curb armed poaching activity. There is little data on the types of firearms poachers use or where their weapons and ammunition come from. Media reports usually mention the ubiquitous AK-47 as a firearm commonly used for poaching. What we have done in this chapter is provide a more nuanced look at the types of weapons used, and why poachers may choose one method of poaching over another. Relating to that, there is a drive, in many rangeland states with alarmingly high elephant and rhino poaching rates, to increase military and police involvement in combating poachers. With the militarisation of anti-poaching initiatives on one hand, and evolution of poaching actors’ methods on the other, both sides are continuously developing new strategies and using advanced types of weaponry in an attempt to outfox one another.
Do we have a clear idea of who the poachers are? Are they professionals, or impoverished local people?
There is a range of different poaching actors in Africa, from large armed groups to individuals who hunt for subsistence. Each actor uses different types of firearms and methods to kill elephants and rhinos illegally. Armed groups, such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and Mai-Mai militias commonly equipped with military-style weapons such as AK-pattern rifles, have poached elephants in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Other groups include the Lord’s Resistance Army, Seleka and the Janjaweed militias. Elsewhere, smaller groups of armed commercial poachers are active all across African rangeland states where there are elephants and rhinos. In a few cases, soldiers from state military forces have also implicated themselves in the poaching of ivory. Armed actors are only one part of the poaching chain, as after the actual poaching on the ground is complete, criminal groups and traffickers then transport ivory and rhino horn to airstrips and seaports, and on to international markets.
Did you identify a tendency in terms of the evolution of the firearms and ammunition found at poaching sites?
Generally, there are three types of firearms out there. Most commonly used for poaching are large-calibre hunting rifles, and craft-made weapons, such as muzzle-loading rifles and shotguns. Military-style weapons are common too, particularly among armed groups. A number of factors can influence the methods and firearms poachers use to kill big game. Craft-made weapons are relatively inexpensive and may be easier to procure for many people, particularly subsistence hunters. On the other hand, specialised hunting rifles with large-calibre ammunition can be quite expensive. This is especially true in comparison with non-firearm methods, including spears or poison, used to kill wildlife.. A single hunting rifle cartridge, for example, can cost more than a full magazine for an AK-pattern rifle. However, poachers may also use different methods to kill elephants or rhinos, depending on where they are conducting the poaching. As firearms make a loud noise and draw the attention of park rangers or other anti-poaching patrols, poachers may opt for quieter methods, such as poisoned arrows. Overall, there is no systematic work being done to record the types of ammunition found at kill sites or the types of weapons seized from poachers. Information on seized firearms is known locally among those parties who seize them, of course, but more can and should be done to record this information so we can start learning more about firearms and ammunition trends across rangeland states.
Is the fight against poaching primarily a question of military response from the governments, of demand for ivory and rhino horn, or of wealth distribution in Africa?
The international demand for ivory and rhino horn drives most of the poaching of elephants and rhinos in Africa, and the militarisation of anti-poaching initiatives is the result of a few different factors. Those factors include well-armed and aggressive poachers. Another factor is that in some cases there is a response to the insufficient law enforcement in deterring and arresting poachers effectively. There is a crisis going on in Africa. Elephant populations are in steady decline, and rhino poaching rates are increasing. In many states, there is a sense of urgency that something needs to stop elephant and rhino killings now. Among the responses to curb poaching rates quickly, one emergent trend is for states to go after poachers with greater use of force, and that means more involvement of armed security actors to execute aggressive anti-poaching policies. However, as long as demand remains high and large profits stand to be made through the illicit trade of ivory and rhino horn, this greater use of force and more lethal engagement with poachers will not solve the crisis. We must work harder in order to do so. With this chapter, the Small Arms Survey has unpacked some of the dynamics of armed poaching, to help inform high-level decision-making concerning the realities of ivory and rhino horn poaching at the very source.
As well as presenting updates on the UN small arms process and the top arms importers and exporters, the report assesses how recent technological developments affect the marking, record keeping and tracing of weapons. It reviews small arms flows to Egypt, Libya and Syria before and after the ‘Arab Spring’ and evaluates a stockpile management initiative in Southeast Europe. The "armed actors" section sheds light on the arms and ammunition used by insurgents in northern Mali, the decline of the FDLR, and the use of floating armouries by private security companies in the Indian Ocean. This edition also analyses the conditions that are driving young people to adopt high-risk coping strategies in Burundi.
The Small Arms Survey report is produced annually by an independent team of researchers based at the Graduate Institute in Geneva and by a worldwide network of locally based researchers. Please click here if you would like to know more information about the Report.
A ranger from the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy searches for poachers while on patrol, near Meru, Kenya, April 2013. © Tom Pilston/Panos Pictures