In the last few years there have been a number of high profile break-ins at zoos and wildlife sanctuaries by poachers, whose purpose was to kill or steal animals to sell on the black market. The most recent tragedy hit close to home for us when two of the 33 lions we helped rescue just last year were murdered at the sanctuary by poachers. These poachers breached sanctuary security to kill Liso and José, who were both rescued from severe abuse and who were enjoying a new life. What happened to Liso and José is abhorrent, disgusting, and becoming more common as poaching is fueled by an increase in demand for lion parts on the black market.
The first deadly attack this year occurred at an orphanage for baby rhinos. The poachers broke in during work hours, attacked the employees, and killed two baby rhinos, removing their horns. Then an outraged world learned of the murder of Vince, a white rhinoceros, at France’s Thoiry Zoo near Paris. He was shot three times in the head, and had his horn removed with a chainsaw. His second horn was partially missing, and investigators believe the poachers ran out of time or had equipment failure and fled.
Not all animals targeted are killed – some are more valuable alive. Small but rare animals, like endangered monkeys, have been stolen to sell to collectors or as exotic pets on the black market. And last year, a critically endangered star tortoise was stolen from a zoo in Perth, very possibly to be illegally trafficked and sold to collectors. Despite the public settings and “safety” of zoo and sanctuary environments, poachers are becoming more brazen as the rarity and value of these creatures skyrockets on the black market.
Paris was a sobering reminder of how far poachers will go for animal products that can fetch more than gold in the right market. Due to the demand in Asia, where it is used in folk medicine, a single rhino tusk could sell for up to a million dollars. Elephant ivory is another such commodity, in demand more than ever and often falsely passed as “antique” to reach even above-the-board markets. As shocking as Vince the rhino’s death was to the world at large, wildlife sanctuaries and preserves have been battling poachers encroaching on protected land for years. Minkébé National Park in Africa hosts nearly 81% of the forest elephant population. Over 10 years, the park has lost at least 78% of their elephants despite the presence of park rangers and even military, mostly to poaching.
Most zoos are fortunate enough to have fences, employees, and guards. They are typically located in metropolitan areas, lending them a measure of safety. Managed sanctuaries for rehabilitating and protecting captive lions, elephants, and other large animals may be at a disadvantage in locality. As for wildlife refuges, fencing in such vast areas is likely to be prohibitive, if not impossible. One of the most common tricks for poachers and big game hunters is to lure animals off the protected land in order to kill them away from any potential security.
The murder of Cecil the lion in 2015 by a Minnesota dentist, who paid $54,000 for the chance, sparked international outrage for a variety of reasons, but the way in which Cecil was “legally” killed despite being protected raised countless concerns. Big game excursions are huge business, with people paying tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to hunt animals in Africa. The most popular means of catching wild predators is to bait them to an open area where they can be corralled and killed. How do you protect hundreds of miles of park, sometimes straddling different countries, from a handful of men with a car and a carcass?
There is no simple solution. The situation is incredibly multifaceted and complicated. How much security can a zoo, sanctuary, or wildlife reserve afford? Do governments need to do more to battle the exotic trade markets? Should they be allocating more funding to accredited zoos and sanctuaries? How much can we really put into the protection of these species? It feels hopeless, like a hill that can’t possibly be climbed. Luckily, that isn’t the case. Even small actions can lead to huge changes.
The most important part we can play is being advocates. Far too many cases like these have passed unnoticed, but the more visible these crimes become, the more pressure we can make those in a position to change things feel. The boycotts of Seaworld helped end decades of institutionalized abuse. A zoo in The Czech Republic is responding to the wave of break-ins by dehorning their rhinos to remove any temptation. Other zoos have installed new security systems. Individuals can do more than just spread the word. There are dozens of sanctuaries and habitats that need help from volunteers. Donating money or time can help reduce staff needs and give them more options to help protect and serve the animals in their charge. There has been great progress, but there is still a great deal to be done.
When we flew José, Liso, and 31 other lions to a sanctuary, they were meant to live the remainder of their lives in safety and comfort. For the surviving lions who, like Liso and José, experienced a lifetime of unimaginable cruelty and abuse before being rescued, we pledge to make this happen. We will raise funds help Animal Defenders International and Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary invest in infrared cameras and alarms, hire more guards at the sanctuary, provide for a potential evacuation plan to ferry the other animals to safety, and pursue the investigation to bring the poachers responsible to justice. Whenever tragedy hits, no matter how gut-wrenching and horrific, we can always come back stronger if we work together. We will stop poachers from destroying more of our precious wildlife!