12 June 2013


Several decades ago, I spent four years as caretaker at a nature preserve in southern Arizona. The habitat was a relict (a remnant of what was once common in the region) ~ an upland marsh  fed by a year-round stream.  The marsh and riparian vegetation was tall and lush, while the drier surrounding hills hosted juniper/oak woodland.

This oasis amid desert grassland attracted rainbows of migrating birds in spring and fall, and was home to a wide array of resident birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, and insects.  Several species were rare or endangered, including Mearns Quail and Canelo Ladies Tresses orchids.

My duties included greeting and educating visitors, maintaining the historic adobe ranch buildings, monitoring natural events, keeping records, and (during hunting season) patrolling the preserve boundaries to discourage hunters from poaching deer, bobcat, and other game.  I did so wearing a visible sidearm as a deterrent to violent misbehavior.  It worked.

In other nations, especially those where poachers are after bigger, more valuable game, government rangers have found themselves in an escalating arms race.  In Africa and Asia, the rewards are huge for elephant tusks, rhino horns, and the trophy skins and internal organs of tigers, lions, and other predators.  Gangs of thugs heavily armed with automatic weapons don't hesitate to murder the guardians of wildlife, so the guardians are literally fighting back.  If you're caught poaching, you die on the spot.

This may sound draconian, but I support it.  Since the time of my childhood, the world's wildlife has been decimated to a small fraction of former population sizes, both by hunting and by the destruction of habitat.  Case in point ~ as recently as the 1990s, there were 5,000-7,000 tiger in India.  Today the number stands at a mere 1800, which neverthless represents fully half of the world's surviving tigers. Poachers have become so bold and relentless that the western India state of Maharashtra has passed a law authorizing its forest guards to kill poachers on sight.

Sound extreme?  Consider this ~ if a law enforcement officer responded to a call of shots fired, and encountered one of our recent mass killers shooting people, that officer would not hesitate to shoot the gunman.  In such situations, due process and the reading of rights are suspended.  Thus should it be for the illegal killers of wildlife.  I'm not referring to licensed hunters (though I have a beef with them too), but rather to poachers, who know exactly what they're doing, and brazenly proceed.  Especially where endangered species are concerned, the fatal risk of getting caught must be high, and inexorable.  As responsible planet stewards, we can do no less.

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