It’s the latest in a string of new state and federal laws designed to crack down on activists who trespass on farms – often to gather video evidence of alleged animal cruelty, which is later distributed to the public.
But amid the flurry of attention on activists, another group of trespassers on farms has largely escaped attention: illegal hunters.
Unauthorised access to farm properties can create many problems – not least, it runs the risk spreading disease such as African swine fever that can devastate farming industries.
It’s important that laws to tackle farm trespass are evidence-based. So let’s look at the evidence.
Media and political focus
Media coverage of activists trespassing on farms has appeared regularly in recent years.
Over several months in 2018-19, activists targeted the Gippy Goat farm and cafe in Victoria – in one incident stealing three goats and a lamb. News reports covered the protests, claims by farmers that the fines issued to the activists was inadequate, and the eventual closure of the farm to the public.
In another example last year, the front page of rural newspaper the Weekly Times featured a family exiting the farming industry after alleged trespass and threats from animal activists.
Activists did not escape the attention of politicians. Ahead of Victoria’s new legislation this month, federal parliament last year passed a bill criminalising the “incitement” of both trespass, and damage or theft of property, on agricultural land.
Speaking in support of the bill, Attorney-General Christian Porter said trespass onto agricultural land could contaminate food and breach biosecurity protocols. He specifically cited “activists” when describing how the laws would work.
The New South Wales government last year also introduced significant fines for trespass on farms in the Right to Farm Act. And in South Australia, the government wants those who trespass or disrupt farming activities to face tougher penalties.
But as lawmakers crack down on animal activists, the problem of trespass by illegal hunters gets little political attention.
The illegal hunting problem
Illegal hunting includes hunting without a required licence and accessing private property without permission.
In 2015 and 2016, this article’s co-author Alistair Harkness surveyed 56 Victoria farmers about their experiences and perceptions of farm crime. Farmers reported that in recent years, illegal hunters had caused them economic loss and emotional anguish by:
- damaging fences
- shooting at buildings, beehives and livestock
- stealing from sheds
- failing to extinguish campfires
- destroying fields with their vehicles.
A follow-up mail survey of 906 Victorian farmers in 2017 and 2018 asked them to rate the seriousness of a range of issues. Farmers reported the following issues as either serious or very serious: illegal shooting on farms (34.4%), animal activism (30.9%), and trespass (44.2%).
Lead author Kyle Mulrooney is conducting the NSW Farm Crime Survey 2020. The work is ongoing, but so far farmers have reported feeling victimised by trespassers generally, and fear about illegal hunters. Farmers were not specifically asked for their views on trespassing activists.
A submission to a NSW parliamentary inquiry last year underscored the distress felt by farmers when hunters trespass on their properties. Farmer John Payne recalled:
Recently we had a period over several nights, where unknown persons trespassed on our property and callously killed a substantial number of our goat kids, in one case trussing one up before killing them. All just for fun and sport! […] This is one of several events where people have trespassed and shot our animals for fun, or hunted for pigs or wildlife, with little fear of detection, arrest and prosecution.
Police follow the evidence
Figures supplied to us by NSW Police show in 2018, 513 incidents of criminal trespass on farms was recorded – up from 421 in 2014.
Giving evidence to the NSW parliamentary inquiry, Detective Inspector Cameron Whiteside, the State Rural Crime Coordinator, said illegal hunting was “the most cited factor associated with the trespass” on farms.
Police action appears to be following the evidence. In communication with the lead author, Whiteside has said enforcement and operations focused on illegal hunting and trespass are a primary and current focus of the Rural Crime Prevention Team.
Target all trespassers
As African swine fever sweeps Asia, Australian pork producers have been urged to ramp up biosecurity efforts on their own properties. This reportedly includes restricting visitor numbers and separating visitor and farm vehicles.
There are fears that if the disease hits Australia, it could could shut down Australia’s A$5.3 billion pork industry, leading to mass job losses.
Given these risks, it’s important that policies to crack down on farm trespassers are guided by evidence, and don’t unduly target a single group.
And importantly, more research into the issue is needed – including into the social and economic impacts of farm trespass, in all its forms.
Kyle J.D. Mulrooney, Lecturer in Criminology, Co-director of the Centre for Rural Criminology, University of New England and Alistair Harkness, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Centre for Rural Criminology, University of New England
There will be few positives to take from coronavirus. But the global pandemic may yet prove to be an important moment in the attempts to address the illegal wildlife trade.
The media has generally concentrated on effects rather than causes, in particular the global implications for public health and economies. But it is also vital to unravel the timeline of the pandemic and categorically determine its initial cause.
What we do know to date is that the epicentre of the disease was in the Chinese city of Wuhan, an important hub in the lucrative trade in wildlife – both legal and illegal. The outbreak is believed to have originated in a market in which a variety of animal-derived products and meats are widely available, including peacocks, porcupines, bats and rats. It’s also a market where regulatory and welfare standards are rudimentary at best.
Some of this trade is legal under Chinese domestic law but the existence of a parallel illegal trade – often within the very same market or stall – allows some traders to launder illicit wildlife products into the system. This situation is very difficult to regulate and control.
We are also reasonably certain that the spill-over event involved the crossover of the virus from animals to humans, similar to the situation with previous contagions like the Ebola and SARs viruses. In each of these cases, the existence of large, unsanitary and poorly-regulated wildlife markets provided an ideal environment for diseases to cross over between species. In a country like China, where wildlife consumption is
so deeply embedded in culture, such contamination can, and did, spread
The Chinese government has long advocated a “sustainable utilisation” approach to the country’s wildlife. It nonetheless responded to the current crisis by enacting a temporary ban on such markets, effectively closing down a significant sector of its domestic wildlife trade.
Biosecurity, public health and economic impact
In the longer term, the pandemic may provide the impetus to properly address the issue. This is because, while the illegal wildlife trade was once criticised almost purely in terms of conservation, it is now also being considered in relation to broader themes of biosecurity, public health and economic impact.
It is only in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak that the full scale of China’s industry is emerging, with the temporary ban covering some 20,000 captive breeding enterprises and 54 different species allowed to be traded domestically. A report by the Chinese Academy of Engineering estimates the wildlife farming industry is worth around US$57 billion annually. These breeding centres are allowed to operate under loopholes in Chinese domestic law, arguably against the spirit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
The parallel illegal trade is less easy to quantify, but globally it is valued by the UN at around US$23 billion. Given the resulting pandemic could cost as much as US$2.7 trillion, even on purely economic grounds there is a strong case for increased regulation.
There are compelling arguments for dismantling the trade anyway: animals are kept in abject conditions, and the trade hastens their demise in the wild. But in China the temporary ban remains just that – temporary. Critics argue that we have been there before with SARS and once the dust settled on that particular outbreak, China resumed business as usual.
What would seriously tackling the wildlife trade actually mean in practice? First, breeding centres for endangered species like tigers or pangolins would be permanently closed. This would make it much harder for their products to be laundered through legal channels and sold as more valuable “wild-caught”. Enforcement agencies currently need to monitor these centres closely to check against laundering, and shutting them down would free up resources to disrupt the supply of illegal products entering China from outside.
Such a move would also help reduce demand. Public education campaigns tell people about how the wildlife trade (both legal and illegal) harms endangered species, but the message is mixed: the presence of a parallel legal market still provides such products with legitimacy and sends a message that it is OK to purchase them, thereby increasing rather than decreasing demand.
In any case the new Chinese ban excludes products such as tiger bones that are used in traditional medicines. Some conservationists and activists are concerned that this exemption will lead to legalised trade under the assumption that better regulation will protect against future outbreaks. This argument is extremely difficult to validate and most conservationists continue to favour blanket trade bans.
Another worry is that, given humans have short memories, once the danger has passed public concern will turn to the next big problem. COVID-19 clearly represents an unparalleled opportunity to combat the wildlife trade, and ensure that animal-borne diseases do not mutate and cross over to humans. But only time will tell whether this opportunity will be taken or put off once again until the emergence of the next – perhaps even more virulent – pandemic poses an even graver global threat.
Matthew H. Holden, The University of Queensland; Alexander Richard Braczkowski, The University of Queensland; Christopher O’Bryan, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Griffith University; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; James Allan, The University of Queensland, and James Watson, The University of Queensland
The tusks of more than ten thousand elephants went up in flames in Kenya on April 30, 2016 – the world’s largest ever ivory burn. It was meant as a powerful display against poaching and the illegal ivory trade.
But did those flames reach their intended target?
Currently, governments, donors and NGOs aren’t monitoring the impact of these ivory burns. So we tracked the media coverage of the Kenyan burn, with the results published this month in Conservation Biology.
Who got the message?
We had a simple question in mind with this research: did news of this burn make its way to ivory consumers and elephant poachers, and if so was the message one that denounced poaching?
The answer is a bit nuanced. Certainly the news of the ivory burn was strong (loud and clear) locally in Kenya and Tanzania and heavily amplified by news outlets across the western world (81% of online articles on the burn were produced in the United States).
Unfortunately, we found low coverage of the burn in China, Vietnam and other countries where demand for illegal ivory is highest.
Of the 1,944 online articles that covered the burn in the countries sampled, only 61 where produced in mainland china. Additionally, more than half of the coverage in China was in English language publications, which may not reach or resonate with all key ivory consumers.
The good news is, media stories around the ivory burn delivered an anti-poaching message. They stressed the importance of burns, ivory trade bans and law enforcement to catch poachers, smugglers and dealers, as key steps to saving elephants.
To burn or not to burn?
The authors on our research paper are a group of scientists and conservationists with diverse backgrounds, across Africa, North America, Australia, Europe and Asia. Our values are as diverse as our experiences.
Most of us feel a bit of sadness because watching elephant tusks engulfed in flames is a reminder of elephant slaughter.
For some of us though, the sadness is tempered by feelings of hope and justice – this is ivory that will never go into the hands of illegal dealers and ivory consumers and, as such, acts as a major deterrent.
But for others, the response was upsetting – animals had been murdered, and to add insult to injury, their remains wasted.
In the Kenyan burn, the ivory was estimated to be worth more than US$100 million (A$128 million) on the black market.
These stockpiles of ivory are an unfortunate reality. Ivory is harvested by elephant poachers. Between 2007 and 2014 an estimated 144,000 elephants were killed. If we are lucky, these poachers are caught and their ivory confiscated. Piles of seized ivory accumulate in massive stockpiles across Africa.
So this poses a difficult situation. What should we do with all that ivory?
We’d all, obviously, rather see ivory where it belongs, on live elephants. In an ideal world ivory would only be collected, if at all, from elephants that died from natural causes and so trade in this product would not be a problem.
But the world isn’t ideal. Even though the price of ivory has declined, elephant tusks have been known to fetch up to US$10,000 (A$12,800). With the financial incentive to poach so high, it sometimes seems like an insurmountable problem.
Ivory for conservation
Some of us believe that destroying ivory sends a strong message against poaching and illegal ivory trade – by saying that ivory is only valuable on a living elephant.
These members of our group think that we might as well burn these stockpiles, to demonstrate that trade should never be supported (as it cannot be adequately policed). They are heartened by the adoption of ivory trade bans by China and the United States.
But others in the group think destroying a quantity of ivory – worth far more on the black market than Kenya’s entire annual wildlife management budget – squanders an opportunity to sell the ivory.
The money could then be used to conserve elephants and other endangered wildlife (although pro-trade proponents acknowledge that there are implementation issues regarding corruption and policing efficacy).
To these members of our group, burning the ivory would be like burning cash in front of a person with no food or shelter.
Deep down inside, we all have one common goal, to save elephants.
Rather than arguing based on our emotions, that’s why we carried out the latest research – a first step towards helping us decide whether ivory burns will reduce poaching.
With the most recent ivory destruction event, in Melbourne, Australia, now is the time to think deeply about the efficacy of these ivory destruction events.
We need messages to be targeted towards the most important audiences, and we need to monitor consumer behaviour – not just the media coverage – in response to these events.
The scientific evidence for which action best saves elephants – burning or using regulated ivory sales to fund conservation – is still inconclusive. But as long as we move forward with ivory destruction, let’s make sure we monitor its impact.
Matthew H. Holden, Lecturer, Centre for Applications in Natural Resource Mathematics, The University of Queensland; Alexander Richard Braczkowski, PhD Candidate – Wildlife Cameraman, The University of Queensland; Christopher O’Bryan, PhD Candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Senior Research Fellow Social-Ecological Systems & Resilience, Griffith University; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; James Allan, PhD candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, and James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland
The link below is to an article reporting on illegal beef farming in the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve in Nicaragua.