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A Thai poacher standing in front of a captured rhinoceros.

Poaching is the act of the illegal hunting, killing or capturing of wild animals, usually associated with land use rights. Until the 20th century, mostly impoverished peasants poached for subsistence, thus supplementing a scarce diet. By contrast, stealing domestic animals such as cattle raiding is theft, not poaching. Since the 1980s, the term poaching has also been used for the illegal harvest of wild plant species.

In 1998, environmental scientists from the University of Massachusetts Amherst proposed the concept of poaching as an environmental crime, defining any activity as illegal that contravenes the laws and regulations established to protect renewable natural resources including the illegal harvest of wildlife with the intention of possessing, transporting, consuming or selling it and using its body parts. They considered poaching as one of the most serious threats to the survival of plant and animal populations. Poaching is considered to have a detrimental effect on biodiversity both within and outside protected areas as wildlife populations decline, species are depleted locally, and the functionality of ecosystems is disturbed.

Acts of poaching

Violations of hunting laws and regulations concerning wildlife management, local or international wildlife conservation schemes make up wildlife crimes that are typically punishable. The following violations and offenses are acts of poaching:

  • Hunting, killing or collecting wildlife that is listed as endangered by IUCN and protected by law such as the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and international treaties such as CITES.
  • Fishing and hunting without a license.
  • Capturing wildlife outside legal hours and outside the hunting season; usually the breeding season is declared as the closed season during which wildlife is protected by law.
  • Prohibited use of machine guns, poison, explosives, snare traps, nets and pitfall traps.
  • Prohibited use of baiting with food, decoys or recorded calls to increase chances for shooting wildlife.
  • Hunting from a moving vehicle or aircraft.
  • Canned hunting is an inhumane type of poaching wildlife as it often involves illegal activities such as trapping, caging or drugging animals, or cutting their feet with razor blades.
  • Shining deer with a spotlight at night to impair its natural defenses and thus facilitate an easy kill is animal abuse. This hunting method is illegal in Virginia, Connecticut and Tennessee.
  • Taking wildlife on land that is restricted, owned by or licensed to somebody else.
  • The animal or plant has been tagged by a researcher.


Defaunation of forests: predators, herbivores and fruit-eating vertebrates cannot recover as fast as they are removed from a forest; as their populations decline, the pattern of seed predation and dispersal is altered; tree species with large seeds progressively dominate a forest, while small-seeded plant species become locally extinct.  The effective size of protected areas is reduced as poachers use the edges of these areas as open-access resources.  Wildlife tourism destinations face a negative publicity; those holding a permit for wildlife-based land uses, tourism-based tour and lodging operators lose income; employment opportunities are reduced.  Emergence of zoonotic diseases caused by transmission of highly variable retrovirus chains:

  • Outbreaks of the Ebola virus in the Congo Basin and in Gabon in the 1990s have been associated with the butchering of apes and consumption of their meat.
  • The outbreak of SARS in Hong Kong is attributed to contact with and consumption of meat from masked palm civets, raccoon dogs, Chinese ferret-badgers and other small carnivores available in southern Chinese wildlife markets.
  • Bushmeat hunters in Central Africa infected with the Human T-lymphotropic virus were closely exposed to wild primates.
  • Results of research on wild chimpanzees in Cameroon show that they are naturally infected with the simian foamy virus and constitute a reservoir of HIV-1, a precursor of the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome in humans.