Jack EwingNature and Local History Stories

The Eternal Problem of Poaching

You Can Diminish It, But You Can’t Stop It Completely

By Jack Ewing

In February of 2003 I had the opportunity to visit the Sirena Biological Station located on the Pacific side of Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula. We met several University of Costa Rica biology students who were participating in. Dr. Eduardo Carillo’s long standing study of jaguars (Panthera onca) at Corcovado. They were searching for signs of the jaguar’s primary prey, the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari,)  more commonly known as the wild pig. For an entire week they saw only the smaller collared-peccary (Pecari tajacu.)  When asked why the jaguars and their prey were suffering serious population reductions, the UCR students stated that poaching in Corcovado was out of control.
Hacienda Baru

The headline on the front cover of the March 19, 2004 issue of The Tico Times read: “Poachers Ravage Corcovado Park — Jaguars Could Disappear This Year, Experts Warn.” The article goes on to say that in only two years, hunting had halved the jaguar population and the white-lipped peccary population had dropped from approximately 2000 individuals four years earlier to around 300. A prominent Environmental Ministry (MINAE, which is now called MINAET) official was quoted as saying that the poachers are not poor subsistence hunters, but instead drive luxury SUVs and slaughter game with machine guns. There are cases on record of entire herds of peccary being mowed down by automatic weapons fire. Financial gain motivates jaguar poaching, as the hide, teeth and skull of these majestic cats are worth several thousand dollars on the black market. Peccary meat is sold at a high price to bars and restaurants where it is considered a luxury. Tapirs, animals not inclined to congregate in herds, have been killed in lesser quantities. The situation became so serious that MINAE even considered declaring a state of emergency and closing a number of national parks to tourism, in order to free all park personnel for the battle against these professional poachers.

About 25 years ago the African country of Kenya did declare a national emergency. Poachers armed with machine guns were decimating elephant populations. The national economy of Kenya depends on ecological tourism which, in turn, depends on large game. The problem reached such proportions that in the late 1980s the army was called in to deal with the gangs of poachers. In the first year the army killed 43 poachers and the poachers killed less than half that many elephants. Today, several African countries, including Zimbabwe and Zambia, have followed Kenya’s policy of shooting poachers on sight. I’m not suggesting that Costa Rica adopt a similar policy, but we definitely need to search for solutions that work.

When I visited Sirena station I met a tall, muscular park guard named Paulino, who had his own system for dealing with poachers. While patrolling a far corner of the Corcovado National Park, Paulino surprised a loan poacher who had killed a tapir (Tapirus bairdii) and was cutting up the carcass. He promptly arrested the man and prepared for the long trek back to Sirena where he would file formal charges. “I’ll need some evidence,” Paulino informed his prisoner. “That tapir head ought to work just fine. Throw it over your shoulder and let’s go.”

By mid-afternoon the next day when the weary pair trudged into the Sirena ranger station, Paulino’s prisoner and his 25 kilo load stunk so bad, that nobody could get near them. “You know what?” said Paulino, fixing the filthy, exhausted poacher with an intimidating stare, “I’m tired, and I really don’t want to fill out all those papers. It probably isn’t necessary anyway since you aren’t going to do any more hunting in Corcovado…. Are you?”

The man eagerly assured Paulino that he would never hunt again. “Good,” said Paulino, “I was hoping you would see it that way. Now carry that stinking head at least a kilometer from here and leave it in the jungle for the scavengers. I don’t want to see you in the park again.”

Paulino’s system worked in this particular situation, but in most cases it would not be practical. Since that time, the poaching situation in Corcovado gradually improved, but only at a tremendous cost. Eventually, and with international financial assistance, 20 to 30 new park rangers were added to the payroll. With the increased presence of authorities in the park the problem has diminished. It would be an overstatement to say that it is under control. However, jaguar populations are said to be increasing slowly as are their prey species, the white-lipped peccary.

In the region around Dominical we don’t have any jaguars, tapirs or white-lipped peccary, but we have plenty of pacas (Agouti paca,) known locally as tepesquintle. Paca meat is a delicacy which I have been told sells for as much as $20 a kilo in certain local restaurants. Since a mature paca carcass, dressed and skinned will weigh about five to six kilos, a hunter only has to kill one a  week to make as much as he could make working as a manual laborer. Most of the hunters around Dominical don’t hunt for the food, rather they do it for the money.

On Hacienda Barú we have been struggling with poachers since 1976 when I first put up “No Hunting” signs. The first thing the hunters did was tear down the signs. We kept putting them back up until they got tired of tearing them down. I don’t think anybody stopped hunting because of the signs, but at least it put them all on notice. Everybody knew that hunting on Hacienda Barú was prohibited. Finally I hired a forest guard to patrol the areas where people hunted and try to stop them. Our strategy was to try to capture the hunter’s dogs and take them to Don Marcos, the policeman in Matapalo. When the hunters showed up at the police station to get their dogs back, Don Marcos would tell them it was illegal to hunt, and that it was even more serious on private property. The owners would always claim that they hadn’t been hunting, rather that the dogs ran off and got lost. “In that case,” Don Marcos would reply, “these aren’t your dogs, because these dogs were with hunters who were shouting encouragement to them as they ran through the forest after the paca.” Eventually the hunters would realize that they weren’t going to get their dogs back if they didn’t admit to hunting. Don Marcos would make them sign a document admitting that they had been hunting on private property and promising not to hunt again. This worked pretty well. Those who signed the paper probably still hunted in other places, but we never caught one on Hacienda Barú. Unfortunately, Don Marcos is no longer the policeman in Matapalo, and I haven’t been able to find another who will do the same thing as he did.

We once captured three hunting dogs that belonged to a local poacher named Ricardo. The new policeman in Matapalo told me he couldn’t help me and recommended that I take the dogs to Quepos. In Quepos I went to the court, filed charges against Ricardo, and presented the dogs as evidence. The court gave me temporary custody of the dogs. Later they returned the dogs to Ricardo along with a court order prohibiting him from hunting. The whole process took several months and involved about four trips to Quepos. In the end, the court found Ricardo guilty and gave him the choice of going to jail or paying a substantial fine. The word is that he had to sell a cow to raise the money to pay the fine. Ricardo sold his dogs to another local poacher and has never hunted again. On final analysis, I wondered if it had really been worth all of the trouble and expense just to stop one person from poaching. Ricardo’s example didn’t seem to deter anyone else from trespassing on Hacienda Barú and killing the wildlife.

For a while there was a wildlife inspector with MINAET, the environmental ministry, who would take any dogs we captured to San Jose and turn them over to an animal rescue center. This method worked well since the poachers never got their dogs back. Not only that, but we didn’t have to spend time and money making several trips to Quepos to testify. This worked better than anything we ever did. The hunters knew that if our forest guards, whom we now call “park rangers,” were able to capture their dogs, there was no chance of getting them back. As a result everybody quit hunting on Hacienda Barú, at least with dogs. It is amazing what one highly motivated wildlife inspector was able to accomplish with a little dedication and ingenuity.

One former poacher named Ramón told me that one time the owners of several farms where he hunted got so angry that they started shooting any hunting dog that came on their properties. After that he began leaving his hunting dogs at home and started hunting with traps. He would take an empty 55 gallon barrel and bury it in the ground with the open end up. He would usually leave a flap of tin or a piece of screen over the open end and camouflage the opening with leaves. Peach palm fruit, called pejivaye locally, was his favorite bait. He would scatter a little fruit in several places as far as 50 meters from the buried drum with a trail leading to the trap. Ramón would then hang a big bunch of palm fruit directly over the opening of the barrel. When the paca came for the bait, it would fall in the barrel and couldn’t climb out. Ramón told me that he quit using this method because it was a lot of work to set up the trap, and was relatively easy for the property owner to find. Also there was the problem of other poachers finding the paca before him and stealing his prey.

Today most of the poachers that still plague Hacienda Barú hunt with bait. They find a tree that in certain seasons drops fruit on the ground, and the pacas and peccaries become accustomed to coming there to feed. The royal palm and mangos are a couple of the favorites. When the tree is dropping fruit, the poacher will come and move all of the fallen fruit to the same side of the tree usually where there is a comfortable branch not too high up for the hunter to sit or stand. Since most animals won’t come out and feed when the moon is light, the hunter waits until just before the moon sets to climb into the tree and wait. When a paca shows up at the base of the tree to feed, the hunter will shine a bright light in its eyes, causing it to freeze, and then shoot it in the head. Usually he does this by attaching a flashlight to the barrel of a 22 caliber rifle with tape. Another variation of this same system is to pick any tree with an ideal branch where the hunter can sit, and place bananas or peach palm fruit at the base of the tree until the pacas are in the habit of coming there regularly to eat.

Baiting is not nearly as productive as hunting with dogs. So even though we still have a poacher problem at Hacienda Barú, the hunters don’t kill as much wildlife as when they hunt with dogs. The current park rangers spend a good deal of time looking for bait trees. When they find one, they either wait and try to capture the poacher or scatter the bait over a wide area of forest.

Every country in the world where there is wild game has an illegal hunting problem. Some countries are able to keep it under control and others not. Generally, where the penalty is severe and the chances of getting caught high, there is very little poaching. Where the monetary rewards are high such as with ivory, the measures have to be extreme. With most game however a stiff fine and strict enforcement is a good deterrent. In places like Costa Rica where the fines are low and the chances of getting caught and convicted are almost nil, poaching can run rampant. Before the strict new traffic law, nobody bothered to stop at stop signs. Now that you can get a fine in excess of $500 almost everyone stops. The same will happen with poaching if the country ever puts some teeth in the illegal hunting laws.

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