Illegal Hunting: What’s the Big Deal?

Illegal hunting is an increasing issue around the world, especially in Africa. Africa has many endangered species such as lions, elephants, and rhinoceros. In fact, your favorite animal or an animal you expect to see at a zoo is likely one of these endangered species. Our favorite endangered animals are being further reduced because of illegal hunting practices. So how are conservationists trying to save our favorite animals?

To combat illegal hunting, conservationists first need to know where illegal hunting is taking place. Knowing where illegal hunting is happening can help pinpoint areas to focus on that have an increased prevalence of illegal hunting and effectively reduces the amount of illegal hunting in those areas. In a recent study, published by Animal Conservation, Kiffner and colleagues were able to use animal behavior to determine if illegal hunting was happening in certain areas1. Observing the behavior of animals in certain areas can expose the prevalence of disturbances in that area. Kiffner and Colleagues eliminated other disturbances, such as approaching predators, by specifically observing how eight large herbivore species reacted to being approached by humans 1. The researchers noticed that how the herbivores responded to human disturbances was reflected in their use of the habitat and group size1.

Kiffner and colleagues chose four areas in Africa to observe the responses of these eight herbivore species to humans. The areas that were chosen were: Tarangire National Park, Lake Manyara National Park, Manyara Ranch Conservancy, and Mto Wa Mbu game-controlled area1. These areas were selected because of the differences in location, hunting policy, enforcement and human access1. In Tarangire National Park, Lake Manyara National Park, and Manyara Ranch Conservancy hunting is not allowed. However, hunting is allowed in Mto Wa Mbu with a permit but not of endangered species, of course1. Hunting is strictly prohibited in the two national parks, so rangers closely monitor them. In contrast, Mto Wa Mbu and Manyara Ranch Conservancy areas aren’t closely monitored. The reason why was not specified in the study, but I’m assuming it’s because there is a lack of money to hand out to employed rangers1.

The results of this study showed that many of the observed herbivores changed their behavior depending on the study area they were in. In Manyara Ranch Conservancy and Mto Wa Mbu, the herbivores were more aware of human presence and fled more quickly. These two areas were also less protected and had a higher predation risk. By contrast, in the two national parks, where hunting is strictly prohibited, the herbivores viewed humans as less of a threat and decreased their flight initiation distance. The researchers believe it’s because the animals had some way of knowing that the area is protected and, therefore, there is less of a predation risk1.

Only half of the herbivores that were studied responded to humans in a negative way. Therefore, Kiffner and colleagues could only conclude that observing animal behavior is merely a stepping-stone to revealing if illegal hunting is happening in certain areas1. I agree with their final conclusion that animal behavior can only be a signal for possible illegal hunting. In my opinion, it depends on how familiar the animals were with the areas that were studied. These animals could be displaying high alertness because there is a high risk of predation from other animals, not just humans. To my knowledge, the herbivores’ other predators were not accounted for in this study. This could have given the researchers false-positives of what was making the herbivores behave in the observed manner in these areas. This misinterpretation of the animals’ behavior could potentially lead to ineffective management decisions on how to reduce illegal hunting in certain areas, and in the end waste money that could have been used in other areas that are actually experiencing illegal hunting. However, if these behaviors do pinpoint areas that are experiencing illegal hunting, then conservationists can implement strategies to effectively reduce the amount of illegal hunting that is happening. Reducing illegal hunting practices is not only helping with the recovery of endangered species, but it also gives future generations the opportunity to experience these animals as well.




  1. Kiffner, C, Kioko, J, Kissui, B, et al. (2014). Interspecific variation in large mammal responses to human observers along a conservation gradient with variable hunting pressure. Animal conservation, 17(6), 603-612.


13 thoughts on “Illegal Hunting: What’s the Big Deal?

  1. kburrus

    It is interesting to hear that these researches came up with this hypothesis for trying to correlate animal behavior with poaching. It does seem like a very good idea that animals would react differently if they are use to or not to the presence of people. It would have been interesting to see how these animals reacted not just to the presence of a person but to different sounds like gun shots, other predator noises and non competitive species. I think this would have been a good variable to add to see which noise had more effect on the behavior of the animal if any at all. Poaching is a very hard battle to combat and I hope to see more research done on it in the future.

  2. ematth

    I think that the study you talked about is very interesting, I had never thought of correlating the amount of vigilance of the animals to how much poaching may be occurring. However, I agree that using other signals, such as specific noises or movements may be a good study to indicate what exactly the animals are aware of. For example, wildlife exhibited in its natural habitat tends to be by tourist groups with access to natural parks, so the animals may just be used to the presence of humans. Whereas it is less likely that animals outside these parks are frequently viewed by humans at all, so they may just be afraid of the unfamiliar site, rather than the threat of a poacher.

  3. leorah

    This seems like it relates a little bit to how animal behavior can change in captivity with habituation to humans and increased boldness, similar to what is described in the protected areas. I almost would have expected the opposite result though – that in areas where legal and illegal hunting occurs, more carnivores might be hunted, reducing the predation risk for the herbivores in those areas. But I suppose if carnivores and herbivores are hunted proportionally, these results make sense. I’m curious about how many generations it takes to see these differences in perceived human threat between areas.

  4. amajor

    I find this to be quite interesting, in that not only does that it shows that poaching affects the animals in a population sense, but in a behavior sense as well. I think this is important because tourists want to be able to see the animals behave naturally without being too fearful of humans and the poaching is making it less possible for that to happen. Also, I agree with the flaws of that study you’ve mentioned, though also pointed out that it has some good points as well. In animal behavior, there are many factors that could be the cause of abnormal behavior. But in all, I say that this is quite grand.

  5. mberne

    Very interesting look on how behavior can be directly correlated to hunting and potential poaching. However, I do not think that simply because an animal is more vigilant in certain areas it means that there is more hunting taking place. There are many other things that contribute to this behavior, as stated above. I do think that this a good start to see where conservation efforts can have the most impact. More information, such as observing the area to see if poaching is taking place should be used. Are animals in these protected areas learning to be more vigilant simply by seeing others get hunted, or is it due to natural predators in the area they they themselves have had encounters with, causing them to be more vigilant around humans?

  6. Lisa Angeloni

    I also agree with this post and the conclusions of the article that behavior is likely too complicated to be used as a direct measure for illegal hunting. Thanks, Alex, for bringing this article to my attention — I may use this paper when I teach Animal Behavior & Conservation in the future.

  7. Lacey Humphreys

    I never thought about observing the behaviors of “trophy” animals would help to pinpoint where illegal hunting is taking place. I was interesting to me that the herbivores in the conserved areas were not very reactive with increasing proximity to humans. It is a bit concerning however, don’t you think that the rangers should be making them afraid of humans? It seems to me that these herbivores in these national parks could be a prime target for illegal hunting, especially if they were to stray out of the protected areas.

  8. emtemple

    Going along with what most people have commented so far I find this study to be very interesting but somewhat of a guessing game be made by these researchers. It’s hard to assume that because some animals react more to the pressence of humans than others that they have been exosed to hunting by people. I would think that not many animals who have had major conflicts or hunting experiences by humans live on to express this anti-predator behavior. By that I mean how would this behavior be passed through generations or expressed in the population if most the animals don’t survive the encounter. With that said I don’t know for sure that animals don’t survive these encounters and with that the point could be mute, but overall I find the connection between flight distance from humans and illegal hunting rates to be a bit of a stretch. This article was written very well though and I enjoyed your opinions added at the end of the article.

  9. Amy D'Arcey

    As a response to emtemple; I think with herbivores they are looking at animals that live in large herds. If one or two animals in the herd are shot in an interaction with humans the rest of the herd will live on to exhibit avoidance behaviors and reduced flight distances.

    This is a really interesting study and using tools of animal behavior like flight distance seem to be proving invaluable to conservation efforts. I see Alex’s point though that it would have been a more effective study if the presence and behavior of other predators had been accounted for.

  10. sberg

    I never thought about looking at the behavior of animals for illegal hunting but it was a good idea until there was other things that could scare away the animals too. Trying to get those separate would be hard. I would like to see more studies on this topic for future because it could help in stopping the illegal hunting all together.

  11. reneev

    I liked that your sources are scientific studies that show the effects of hunting on the animals’ behavior. It’s a good way to show the public that it’s causing a change and that something should be done about it. I agree with what you said about observing their behavior only being a part of the puzzle; I think it’s an important start but it doesn’t give you all the information you need.

  12. ssteele1

    While I think this study was informative, I wonder if it was hurtful to the cause by helping to habituated these animals to human because there was no negative consequence. Along with that thought, it might help conservation efforts to negatively reinforce animals in less protected areas in some kind of scary (but non-lethal) way. Nevertheless, great topic. I feel like illegal hunting may always be an issue when valuable trophy animals are in question.

  13. Savimay

    I think it is interesting to find behavior changes in areas with illegal hunting, however I don’t think the results are very applicable to all situations. Considering that behavior is so complex and will change based on several factors including species and the environment, it would very difficult to use some simple behavioral guidelines to determine if illegal hunting is occurring in the area. For instance, if the animals have the same behavioral response to a novel predator as they do to illegal hunting we may analyze the situation incorrectly and try and protect the area from illegal hunting that isn’t actually happening. That aside, I still think the article is informative and will help to shine light on the effects of illegal hunting.

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