Tongue Tied: How Our Language Endangers Animals

Updated: Apr 16, 2018

By Laura Hart, Science Writer

The language and labels we use heavily influence our perception of the world around us. For example, the terms “poaching” or “illegal hunting” alter our views of these activities. As poaching is defined as the “illegal hunting of an animal,” the terms are interchangeable but there appear to be patterns in the species described and the way each term is used.


The word poaching was initially coined in the 1520s meaning “to steal game”. More recently, it has been commonly used by media outlets to refer to the illegal hunting of rhinos for their horns and elephants for their ivory, while “illegal hunting” continues to be the preferred term in scientific literature. These preferences are likely due to the scientific preference to describe the activity factually, whereas poaching has become emotionally charged due to the horrific images that often accompany its use.


Poaching is primarily used to refer to large, charismatic mammals such as rhinos, elephant, and tigers and is rarely used in describing the illegal hunting of animals such as sharks, pangolins, or vultures. This contributes to the usage of the word in search terms.


Hope, a white rhino, was seriously injured by poachers in 2016. When it was announced that she had not survived there was a surge in the number of searches containing the word “poaching”.


A few months later, World Rhino Day had a similar impact on search trends; and one month later World Snow Leopard Day led to another huge increase in the number of “poaching” searches following campaigns led by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) and other charities. Graphical representations of search frequencies are so responsive to “poaching” news that it’s possible to pinpoint major events, while the search frequency for “illegal hunting” remains largely stable through the year, further showing the difference in the responses generated by the use of each term.

The sentencing for those charged with poaching vs those charged with illegal hunting of animals also differ (see Table 1). One example to demonstrate this is a case from 2017, in which the individuals charged with the illegal hunting of more than 6000 sharks from 5 protected species were sentenced to between 1-4 years in jail (Galapagos conservancy, 2017). While this exceeds the current limit of 3 years in jail for environmental offences in the Galapagos due to the combination of trafficking offences, individuals charged with poaching offences often receive much longer sentences and larger fines.


Despite the maximum length of imprisonment for rhino poaching in South Africa being 10 years, a Thai national charged with illegally trafficking rhino horns in 2012 received a 40-year prison sentence (BBC News). This is just one example of how these large, charismatic animals that people enjoy seeing are treated as more precious than animals such as sharks, which are more difficult to relate to and are frequently used as the villains in the film industry and the media.

While the fines are significantly higher for those convicted of the illegal hunting of rhinos and elephants, the financial gains possible from trading the products taken from these animals are also higher. Following the trend, the jail terms are also significantly longer and, as shown in the previous example, individuals are often charged for each case of poaching, unlike in the case of illegal fishing of sharks, for which the fishermen caught with over 6000 animals still received one jail term.

While there are more factors at play than simply the terminology used, the species we include in the “poaching crisis” are treated differently to those such as sharks and pangolins, which are often reported as having been “illegally hunted”. This suggests that assigning a more emotional word such as “poaching” to these animals will add more emotional weight to the issue and increase public interest.


The difference in public interest to the more emotional term “poaching” and the sentencing for those animals is so significant that if we wish to end poaching of all species we should use that term to refer to all illegally hunted species. An increasing public interest will lead to an increase in contributions to their protection, and hopefully increased pressure on lawmakers to make sentencing reflect only the severity of the crime, rather than the animals involved in it.

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