On an early morning in January 2013, rangers patrolling Kahuzi-Biéga National Park, a 6,000-square-kilometer (2,300-square-mile) UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Democratic Republic of Congo, spotted a young female Grauer’s gorilla. Known to the rangers as Iragi, a name that means “lucky” in Congolese, she had a wire snare wrapped around her hand. Unable to move, she would have died where she stood without rescue.
Snares can be deadly. In fact, that’s the point. Hunters and poachers around the world use rope, wire or brake cables to make these simple, low-tech, noose-like traps. And they set them in the forest to catch animals.
While hunters mostly target antelope and other smaller game to eat or sell as bushmeat, the snares don’t care. They’re indiscriminate. They often maim or kill non-targeted animals: Elephants, lions, tigers, giraffes. Or a young, critically endangered Grauer’s gorilla like Iragi.
When rangers discovered Iragi’s situation, they alerted Gorilla Doctors, an NGO that provides veterinary care in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC to gorillas that have become habituated to the presence of humans. Time was of the essence. Gorilla Doctors dispatched its DRC team immediately.
“These are wild animals, so we prefer to be as hands-off as possible,” says Kirsten Gilardi, executive director and chief veterinary officer for Gorilla Doctors. “We intervene to provide veterinary care only when an illness or injury becomes life-threatening.”
Which is why the NGO almost always intervenes for ensnared animals.
“The very nature of snares makes them nearly impossible to remove; the harder an animal pulls, the tighter the snare gets. So gorillas don’t do a great job of getting those snares off themselves,” Gilardi explains.
The sooner those snares come off, the better. “The longer the snare is on the limb,” she adds, “the greater the chance for serious injury” because snares can cut through the skin and tissue of a struggling animal and cause infection, resulting in death.
Kahuzi-Biéga’s patrolling rangers are always on the lookout for snares to remove. Because park-adjacent areas are densely populated, there’s a lot of human pressure on wildlife there, and finding snares is a regular occurrence.
“We rely on park personnel to notice,” Gilardi says, noting that Gorilla Doctors offers training in spotting animals injured by the traps. A gorilla caught in a snare, for instance, might be limping or avoiding using a hand or foot. A ranger might also notice a snared ape smelling or licking the injured body part, or using a hand to try and remove the wire. Or a baby gorilla might cry in pain. “Their fur is incredibly thick, so if the snare is tight or there is no long dangling end, it might be hard to see,” she says.
To help Iragi, Gorilla Doctors’ DRC head veterinarian, Eddy Kambale Syaluha, known as Dr. Eddy, grabbed a “go bag” of medical supplies and trekked to the site with a team of rangers and trackers. Soon, they located the young gorilla, who was resting near an old silverback. Her fingers were stiff and swollen, but the wire hadn’t sliced through her skin. Yet.
With rangers and trackers keeping the other gorillas at a safe distance, Dr. Eddy anesthetized Iragi and cut off the snare, saving her life.
Snares 101: Easy, cheap, deadly
Iragi, an animal named and known to researchers, was indeed lucky. Uncounted millions of unnamed, unrecognized animals are trapped and die in snares across Africa, Asia and elsewhere every year to feed rural families and provide bushmeat for booming urban markets.
“People generally snare either to obtain food, or meat to sell, or both,” explains Peter Lindsey, director of the Lion Recovery Fund, which invests in projects across Africa to help lions and restore their habitat. “The challenge is that while bushmeat hunting has been done since time immemorial, the number of people [doing it] has increased dramatically while the wildlife resources have declined drastically — so the demand for bushmeat relative to the supply is enormous. Thus, bushmeat hunting is almost invariably unsustainable unless it … follows realistic quotas.”
Snares are a common method used for hunting bushmeat, with many reasons for their widespread utilization. Notably, snares hit the hunting trifecta: They’re cheap, effective, and made from easily available materials, like rope, wire or brake cables.
Thomas Gray is WWF’s tiger landscape and recovery lead and co-author of several landmark snaring studies, including a 2018 Biodiversity and Conservation study describing Southeast Asia’s wildlife snaring emergency, as well as WWF’s 2020 report “Silence of the Snares: Southeast Asia’s Snaring Crisis.” These popular low-tech traps aren’t only inexpensive to construct and easy to set, he explains, they’re “efficient, too, and require less skill than tracking an animal with a gun.”
Jan Kamler, research associate with the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford in the U.K. who has studied leopards, dholes and other Southeast Asian animals, concurs. “It’s a very cheap method. You don’t need to buy a gun and bullets.”
Kamler has seen many different snaring methods used in Asia. Foot snares, for example, are common. They’re made by digging a hole, putting a loop of wire around it, and attaching it to a bent tree that’s triggered when an animal steps into it. The hole is concealed by strips of bamboo and dirt. Hunters use foot snares because wild pigs, their main target, will stay alive for days after a foot is caught in the trap. That means fresh bushmeat — better for the market. Another variety, electric snares are set up around watering holes. A wire strung between posts is connected to a battery, electrocuting any animal that comes to drink.
Hunters in some places use blanket snaring, peppering an area with so many traps that any animal that walks by can’t avoid them. While small species, like a civet, won’t set these snares off, anything heavier than about 5 kilograms (11 pounds) will. Blanket snaring is the largest threat to animals, Kamler says. “It isn’t [used] everywhere, but it’s increasing.” That worries him.
The practice began in Vietnam, he explains, “as species [there] became more rare, [causing] hunters to set more snares to maintain the same number of animals killed.” Soon, the practice reached border areas, where others learned and adopted the technique. “It’s [now] spread to Laos and Cambodia,” Kamler says. “How far it’ll go, I don’t know.”
In Africa, poachers also put out lines of snares where animals gather. “Snares are typically set in areas where wildlife is concentrated, such as along game trails leading to water, or where wildlife is funneled through narrow passes,” says Lion Recovery Fund’s Peter Lindsey.
Hippo conservationist Karen Paolillo, founder of the Turgwe Hippo Trust and author of A Hippo Love Story, describes what she’s seen. Most often, hippos enter and exit a river at the same spot. That’s where poachers set snares. From 2001 to 2007, she says, that happened frequently in the southern part of Zimbabwe’s Savé Valley Conservancy, a private game reserve where she’s based. “Huge snares lines were set in the bush with up to 100 snares just in one line.”
Every day, Paolillo and her husband would go into the bush to where the hippos normally grazed looking for snares. Although the patch of land they observed was relatively small — just 32 km2 (12 mi2), they removed up to 1,000 snares a year during that period. “We would find snares on every single exit point in the river put there to trap the hippos.”
Since then, the situation has improved. Thanks to consistent daily patrols, snaring has dropped considerably, she says. Now, they remove about 250 snares a year within their small sanctuary.
Snares feed the bushmeat market
“Snaring is an effective method to catch a large amount of bushmeat,” Kamler says, and that bushmeat is destined for urban markets.
“It’s often assumed snares are mostly set by subsistence hunters,” Gray notes. “But that’s a myth.” He points to conversations with hunters, middlemen and restaurant owners throughout Cambodia, who attest that snare-caught wild meat rapidly flows from provincial areas to markets and restaurants in the nearest largest towns and cities, and even to the capital city, Phnom Penh.
The large numbers of animals consumed in these urban centers are the same species caught in snares in protected forests, Gray says. And these conserved forests are the only likely sources for that meat.
In Myanmar, the situation is similar, according to Chris Shepherd, founder and executive director of the Monitor Conservation Research Society, an NGO focused on lesser-known species and the wildlife trade. “It is clear [from the evidence that] snares are being used to stock wild meat markets in Myanmar,” he reports.
Conservationists note that snares are one of the cruelest ways of hunting. “Animals can sometimes languish for days or weeks in a snare before dying from their injuries, dehydration or from starvation,” WWF’s “Silence of the Snares” report explains. And even if an individual manages to escape, “it will often perish later from infection caused by the injury, or starve due to the fact that the injury has limited its ability to walk, forage or hunt.”
“In addition to the sustainability issue, other challenges are that snares are unselective and often kill non-target species, they often cause serious wounding without killing animals, and often result in wastage as poachers do not always check their snarelines regularly,” Lion Recovery Fund’s Lindsey says.
Kamler reports a similar problem throughout Southeast Asia. “One person can set thousands of snares. They only check them once a week.” At the end of the dry season, a prime hunting time, hunters rarely collect snares at all because wire is cheap, he says. “Whatever animals are caught are left to just slowly die in the heat. It’s a cruel way to poach animals. And it’s probably how most animals are killed in Southeast Asia.”
Terrestrial drift nets
The global scale of snaring can be mind-boggling. WWF’s “Silence of the Snares” estimates 12 million snares are present throughout protected areas of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, with the number likely far greater across the wider Southeast Asian region.
That leads to a vast number of unintended casualties.
“Snares can capture all animals unfortunate enough to encounter them,” the WWF report says. “They are a terrestrial equivalent to the drift nets that have devastated marine and freshwater biodiversity.”
The result, it continues, is “empty forest syndrome” and the rapid acceleration of “defaunation — or the emptying of animal species from ecosystems” in Southeast Asia.
Rare species are often hard hit.
“Endangered ungulates like banteng and saola are not targeted for snaring. But they have been the accidental victims,” says Gray.
Tigers are also imperiled by snaring, with the WWF report calling snares “the greatest threat to the long-term presence of tigers in Southeast Asia.” Indeed, the endangered large cats face a double whammy: not only are snares used to poach them, but snares impact their prey, too.
“Snares will get solitary, apex predators, like tigers, first,” says researcher Kamler. Then, he adds, “snares will start to wipe out smaller ones,” like dholes, or Asian wild dogs, which live in packs and need large areas for hunting. Only about 2,500 dholes are left in the wild, making them even more threatened than tigers.
Dholes “come across a lot of snares because they cover large areas,” Gray explains. “And they have the misfortune of co-occurring where there are other species” that hunters are seeking.
“If a few from a pack are snared, the pack can still function. So they can sustain more snaring than other carnivores,” says Kamler. “But eventually snares will get them too.”
Gray has the same fears. “Dholes are silently disappearing largely because they are bycatch in snares,” he says. Dholes have no value as wild meat or traditional medicine, so hunters usually leave them to rot in the snare.
The saola, a critically endangered ungulate, is another animal conservationists fear may be wiped out by snares. Saola, also dubbed the “Asian unicorn,” are one of the world’s least-known large mammals, with none seen alive since 2013. They live only in the Annamite Mountains in Laos and Vietnam. The Saola Foundation presumes that their likely large range increases the chance the animals will encounter a snare line. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) notes that even though they’re not targeted, “the biggest threat to saola comes from hunting, in particular from non-selective snaring.”
No easy solutions to a chronic widespread snare crisis
Many efforts to save the saola have focused on removing snares. The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Laos program, for example, removed more than 7,800 wire snares from the Phou Sithone Endangered Species Conservation Area (ESCA) from October 2012 to March 2014 to protect saola.
Kamler recalls another program in Laos that paid locals $1 for every snare removed. But, he concludes, “it didn’t work because they could just be reset.”
It’s “like a game of hide and seek,” Vietnamese conservationist Minh Nguyen wrote on the Saola Foundation’s blog. “Forest rangers hasten to dismantle snare lines even as poachers reconstruct them at other locations. Snares are hard to detect; their lines can be laid faster than rangers can find them, and even the most intensive efforts by patrol teams have not proved to be effective enough to reduce the risk to mammals like the saola and the large-antlered muntjac, which are highly susceptible to this trapping technique.”
“It’s a never-ending battle,” Gray says. Even trained rangers who remove large numbers of snares say they miss a lot due to careful camouflage. “You’re likely only removing one of many, so you’re not changing the motivation of a hunter. Plus, it’s easy to set snares again. So removing them does not act as a deterrent.”
It’s also hard to catch someone in the act of setting a snare — which is why other important efforts aim to prevent people setting them in the first place. That can be done via a combination of methods.
Gray points to Malaysia as an example that could be tried elsewhere. The Southeast Asian country combines intelligent patrolling of protected area access points with legislation that allows arrest of those entering preserves carrying materials that indicate an intent to snare (such as 50 motorbike cables).
Those trying to solve the snaring problem also need to focus extensively on behavior change, especially reducing the demand for bushmeat by urban customers. “Ultimately, that’s the most important thing we need to be doing,” Gray says. “But it takes time [to alter people’s ingrained eating habits] and needs to be combined with intelligent law enforcement in more protected areas.”
Until that happens, removing snares and helping animals caught in them remain key parts of the solution.
Each snare removed is a life saved — as evidenced by story after story.
In June of this year, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and the Kenya Wildlife Service’s Tsavo Mobile Vet Unit rescued a giraffe caught in a poacher’s snare. “Left untended for much longer, this giraffe could have lost his limb — and his life,” wrote the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
Instead, thanks to quick intervention, the giraffe was freed and quickly able to put weight on its foot. It will likely make a full recovery.
A week earlier, an elephant bull caught in a massive cable snare was rescued and treated; now back on its feet, it has received a positive prognosis. “Without intervention,” Sheldrick Wildlife Trust wrote, “the snare would have likely claimed his life.”
That same week, a 3-year-old elephant was also saved from a snare. “This young elephant should have her whole life ahead of her,” the NGO wrote. “A single loop of wire threatened all of that. Now, she has hope for a better tomorrow.”
Gorilla Doctors made a similar difference for Iragi. Nearly a decade on, she’s now a healthy adult female. And Iragi had two babies. While the first died, the second, an 11-month-old male, is thriving. That birth demonstrates clearly how removal of a single snare affects not only one individual but generations to come.
Gray, T. N., Hughes, A. C., Laurance, W. F., Long, B., Lynam, A. J., O’Kelly, H., … Wilkinson, N. M. (2017). The wildlife snaring crisis: An insidious and pervasive threat to biodiversity in Southeast Asia. Biodiversity and Conservation, 27(4), 1031-1037. doi:10.1007/s10531-017-1450-5
Belecky, M., & Gray, T. N. (2020). Silence of the Snares: Southeast Asia’s Snaring Crisis. Retrieved from WWF website: https://www.worldwildlife.org/publications/silence-of-the-snares-southeast-asia-s-snaring-crisis
This article by Laurel Neme was first published by Mongabay.com on 18 August 2022. Lead Image: Large animals, including big cats like leopards, and even elephants, are the victims of snares. Image by Gowthaman k.a via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
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