The depletion of megafauna can significantly impact ecological processes involving vegetation, hydrology, nutrient cycling and firebreaks; this in turn has detrimental cascading effects on other species. By browsing trampling and toppling trees large animals open up glades, vital for small herbivores, and create space for predators to hunt. Elephants enlarge waterholes and during the dry season they dig to expose underground springs; thereby, enabling smaller animals to access the water also. The likelihood of major bushfires is reduced due to the consumption of twigs and leaves that would otherwise accumulate on the ground and potentially add fuel to a fire. Megafaun are also important for nutrient cycling and seed dispersal - seeds are transported in their gut (including some that have no other means of dispersal) and are subsequently fertilised by their dung.
As rhino and elephant populations dwindle so to will the ecosystem services that they provide.
Elephants and rhinos are the architects of the landscape – ecological engineers that create conditions essential for the survival of numerous other animals. Therefore, the negative impact of poaching extends far beyond the obvious harm to target species.
In addition to the profoundly negative impacts for endangered species, ecosystem stability and biodiversity, the illegal trade in wildlife also leads to civil conflict and the exploitation of institutional weakness.
The African elephant once ranged across most of the continent, from the Mediterranean coast to the southern tip. It is thought that in the 1940s there may have been as many as 3-5 million elephants in Africa; but from the 1950s, in the wake of intensive hunting for trophies and tusks, elephant numbers fell dramatically. And by the 1980s an estimated 100,000 elephants were being killed per year, and in some regions up to 80% of herds were lost
At the beginning of the 20th century there were 500,000 rhinos across Africa and Asia. This fell to 70,000 by 1970 and further to just 25,000 within the last decade.
In Feb 2013 the IUCN reported that there were just 20,405 white rhinos and 5,055 black rhinos left in Africa. If poaching continues at its current level the death rate will soon exceed the birth rate, and rhinos will quickly become extinct in the wild.
Every year many brave rangers die at the hands of poachers. Whilst dealing with the loss of loved ones (and possibly breadwinners), the families of those who have died in the line of duty often have to struggle on without compensation.
Many African countries have prioritised tourism as a major sector for driving economic growth, employment creation & poverty reduction. Therefore, poaching of flagship species robs states and communities of their natural assets; it undermines sustainable economic development, and has serious economic and social consequences that threaten the livelihoods of communities that are dependent on wildlife tourism and natural resource.
If the natural assets, upon which tourism is based, are degraded by poaching or other means it will inevitably result in lost revenue and jobs.
Furthermore, profits from poaching are also known to feed into criminal organisations which seek to undermine the state. A UNEP Assessment published in 2014 estimated annual income from ivory to militias, operating in the entire Sub-Saharan range, to be in the order of US$ 4.0–12.2 million. Some of this profit feeds in to well-known terrorist organisations and organised crime, such as drug cartels, human trafficking and money laundering.