Guns will not win the war against elephant poachers

Bigger fines and stronger penalties alone won’t be enough to stop poaching for ivory – but traditional values could help

A Kenyan wildlife ranger inscribes markings on the 775 elephant tusks, seized by port police in Mombasa Photograph: Joseph Okanga/Reuters

Despite best efforts we are not winning the war on poaching. A massive seizure of 1.5 tons of ivory in Kenya’s port city of Mombasa on 3 July flies in the face of threats against poachers and dealers by the Kenya government, and yet ivory traffickers continue unabated. In the first six months of 2013 more than 7.5 tons of ivory was seized in the country – more than was seized in all of 2012.

By all measures, elephants are much worse off than last year; ivory continues to flow through the country at increasing rates, and the slaughter of elephants is accelerating. The public, CITES, conservationists and the world criticizes Kenya for her failure to match words with actions. The situation is rapidly spiraling out of control.

Kenya has taken many decisive actions. Thirty-two staff including senior officers of the Kenya Wildlife Service were sent home for involvement or suspicion of involvement in driving the crisis, the list of shame includes senior officers in the security department. The government is enacting new legislation, committing additional funds to hire 1,000 new rangers, and private sector has also re-doubled their efforts through increasing investment in anti-poaching with special training, more monitoring, drones, sniffer dogs, attack dogs, vehicles, 1000$ worth of remote cameras and aircraft.

Despite these military efforts to stop the poachers, the problem is worsening. As Julius Kimani, Deputy Director of Security in KWS said in a meeting last week

We cannot win this war with guns, it is time to explore more intelligent ways of motivating people to stop killing our most magnificent species.

Changing trends in poaching

There was a time when despite the costs and risks, Kenyans defended elephants. Poaching elephants for ivory was unacceptable to most, and those who engaged in it were demeaned. In the 1970’s and 80’s poachers mostly the tough wiry Somali people who entered Kenya on foot from the north with guns under their shuka’s (sarongs). They followed the tracks of elephants, shot them and buried the ivory for collection at a later date. It was a low tech business. Today the poaching and trafficking of ivory is no longer the prestige of the Somali, it is being done by all tribes, professionals, and individuals of all walks of life:

In April a young university student was arrested at a Kenyan shopping mall in a smart SUV full of ivory.

Local community members once considered the buffer against poachers from outside are now poaching.

Local poaching rings operate with impunity in Kenya.

Staff and ex-staff of conservation bodies are now doing the poaching themselves.

Army officers have been arrested on suspicion of poaching

Two renowned Kenyan elephant conservationists have been arrested on charges of ivory trafficking.

On 29th of June an American traveller was arrested at Nairobi International Airport and charged with smuggling ivory.

At this rate it is conceivable that anybody could be suspected of involvement in the ivory trafficking business because it is not poverty that drives people to kill elephants or traffic ivory. Why is it that so many people are now involved in poaching and trafficking of ivory?

Understanding the psychology of poachers

In a recent discussion with behavioral economist and professor at Duke University Dan Ariely, I was challenged to think about the human motivations behind the poaching. Ariely, the author of three New York Times Best Sellers Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and The Honest Truth about Dishonesty has studied motivations behind the actions of criminals.

I spoke to Ariely about the Kenyan government response to the crisis, by enacting extreme penalties to discourage poachers. Like others I have a gut feeling that higher penalties may not work, I fear that instead suspects will bribe the police, the price of ivory will increase to compensate and thus accelerate the killing. Ariely said I had a point, but not necessarily for the reasons I thought.

I learned three important things about behavioral economics that are relevant to poaching.

1. Everyone is dishonest to the limit of social acceptance

First, Ariely’s research suggests that when many of people are doing bad things, it is easier for anyone to view it as socially acceptable and starting engaging in this activity as well. Ariely’s logic suggests that the more we report the scale of ivory trafficking and elephant poaching, the more it seems ubiquitous and therefore people will think “Everyone else is doing it so why not me?”. It seems counter intuitive but what this means is that the more awareness we create about poaching and ivory trafficking, the worse it’s going to get. At least as long as the awareness is not tightly connected with moral disgust and condemnation.

His research also finds that we tend to do bad things only up to a limit, and that limit is defined by our own personal standards of acceptable dishonesty. For example, everyone may steal a little, and even when given the opportunity to take more, people tend to restrict their cheating to a certain level which is defined by personal and social norms. It is a kind of social learning, where we observe other people’s actions as a way to figure out what is OK and what is not.

Social acceptance of many dishonest activates such as drug use, infidelity, doping by elite athletes, bribery and corruption may be rooted in repeated media stories about more and more individuals engaging in thee activities – leading us to view these activities as more commonplace. We then rationalize our cheating behavior and say “I know it’s wrong, but so what, everyone else is doing it”. We see this daily in Kenya where drink driving is socially acceptable and many people do it. Yet few Kenyans would dream of drink driving in USA or UK where there is no social acceptance of this kind of behavior.

2. Criminals start small

The second thing I learned from Ariely is that most criminals start off small, whether it’s insider trading or drug crimes. Once they get started it is easier to do a little more, and before long they are doing things that initially were unthinkable. Culprits often report surprise and horror about the scale of what they are doing when they get caught. It’s what we affectionately call the slippery slope, once you are on it you will stay on it and it just gets worse and worse. To many people, committing a crime, no matter how small, is like losing your virginity; once it’s gone it can’t be reclaimed. But the good news is that we do have mechanisms to reboot and start over. Think of confession in the Catholic Church.

3. Risk of getting caught deters criminals more than the size of the penalty

The third thing I learned is that the likelihood of someone engaging in criminal activity is related less to the severity of the penalty and more to the likelihood of getting caught – and particularly when the probability is very high (think about crossing a red light when the fine is $1,000 and the probability is 1% vs a situation where the fine is $0 and the probability is 100%). Ariely’s research finds that despite the fines and jail terms for drug dealing, people still do it, especially in places where the odds of getting caught are low, and especially where there is a culture of crime. So according to this argument, as long as there is a high probability of getting away with it, a poacher might continue to take the risks no matter how high the penalty. From this perspective, higher penalties in an unchanged world of poor investigations, and high corruption, might even escalate the problem as more people stepping onto the slippery slope and the dark world of wildlife crime. All of this means that while stiffer penalties (if they get executed) will certainly get hundreds if not thousands of people into jail for 15 years or more (which is far from ideal), it is not likely to stop the killings.

Ariely concluded

“Rather than creating stiff punishments for offenders if they are caught, we need to change the moral standing on these issues and the educational process that leads to our understanding of the unacceptability of such behaviors”.

How can we apply behavioural economics to save elephants?

From Ariely’s research we can take two lessons and actions that might stem the flow of poachers, and reverting those already in crime back to a life of honesty.

First we must address the perception that everyone is poaching and stop those people from becoming engaged in poaching or ivory trafficking because everyone else is doing this. This may be possible through social messaging mechanisms. Poaching must become a socially unacceptable practice, morally wrong, and a taboo.

Secondly, we should look for a way to give those who have just entered onto the thin edge of the slippery slope, a reason to jump off it. African traditions are replete with examples of traditional courts that allow petty criminals to be forgiven. The convict apologizes, pays the penalty, promises not to do it again, and returns to society. This was most famously, if not, controversially applied in the case of the Rwanda genocide through the traditional and officially recognized Gacaca courts.

Honoring traditional values to save elephants

Traditional courts have been shown to be effective for wildlife crimes. For example, in May when the rhino named Omni was killed in Ilingwesi, north Kenya. Government efforts to trace the killers failed until the elders decided to use traditional methods. They gave the culprits 10 days to face up to the crime or risk being cursed. On the tenth day two men came forward. They were immediately fined 3 cows each as per tradition, and then taken to a police station for formal charges. The public acknowledgement, show of remorse, apology and repentance allows these men to return to society though their community is likely to be keeping a close eye on them. Not much publicity or recognition has been accorded to this case which may hold the answer for changing values.

If Ariely is right, then conservationists and governments should begin seriously thinking about how to prevent ordinary people from losing their ‘virginity’ and entering into the shadowy world of wildlife crime. Unless the social acceptance of corruption and bribery are significantly reduced, it is unlikely that much will be gained in terms of reducing crime of all kinds in Kenya. Poaching and ivory trafficking must once again become so socially unacceptable that communities will not tolerate their own getting involved. By applying behavioral lessons to the problem, we can recognize and empower traditional African courts to honour our African values, change perceptions and grow a community that defends elephants despite the economic incentives.



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