Do Pirates Still Exist?

Piracy still exists, but modern pirates don’t look like their fictional, often comical counterparts. They don’t have wooden legs or bury treasures full of gold, but the essence of the crime remains unchanged since ancient times: pirates will persecute or lure a ship to hijack it or steal its contents.

Pirates still exist, although they don’t resemble pirates in the media. Most piracy today happens in Somalia, West Africa, and the South China sea. Modern pirates hijack ships and ask for ransom in exchange for the ship and its crew.

Protecting their ships from piracy costs governments and maritime companies millions of dollars every year. Although it’s uncertain whether piracy will ever stop, many efforts are being made to combat it.

What Do Modern Pirates Do?

Modern pirates board ships and hijack them. They are often heavily armed. Pirates subdue the crew, take the ship to a remote place, and ask for ransom from the maritime company or government in exchange for the ship and the life of the crew.

Piracy had its golden age during the 16th and 17th centuries. [1] That’s where the most well-known image of a pirate comes from. And although piracy was driven out from a good portion of the world, it never really disappeared.

The reason most people in the West don’t hear about pirate attacks is that they mostly occur in West Africa and the South China Sea. They generate little interest in the West and usually don’t make headlines.

Modern piracy isn’t large enough to throw off the world economy, but pirates do pose a serious problem for maritime companies and governments across the globe. In 2020, 200 incidents were reported to the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre. [2]

There isn’t a single method by which pirates attack ships, but most of the time, it comes down to hijacking.

How Modern Pirates Hijack a Ship

In order to hijack a ship, pirates need to get close to it somehow. They’ll often start their approach by claiming to have a technical problem and requesting assistance.

Depending on how well defended and how fast a ship is, pirates may be able to get to it on a small boat–sometimes without being noticed. They may also get at a firing distance from the ship they’re trying to assault and intimidate the crew into submission.

Once they’re on deck, pirates will subdue the crew, take control of the ship, and take it to an unguarded coast. [3] Then they will contact the maritime company or the government responsible for the ship and ask for ransom in exchange for the ship, its contents, and the life of the crew.

Large cargo ships are worth many millions of dollars. Whichever price the pirates put up, it will be preferable to pay it than to lose the ship–not to talk about the human lives that are at risk.

However, not all pirate operations are that sophisticated. 

In the 1990s, when the first wave of modern piracy began, most pirates operated on a small scale and were satisfied with robbing ships. They would board a ship, take as much of the valuables as they could, and leave as fast as possible.

Soon, pirates started to notice that it was much more profitable to ask for ransom for the ship. That’s why, when pirates board a large ship, they are almost always looking to get a ransom.

However, assaults on smaller ships may take on a different nature. In many parts of the world, these assaults fall upon local sailors and fishermen. Robbery is more common for these smaller acts of piracy, but pirates can usually still get away with asking for ransom from the local authorities.

Modern pirates can be well-armed, especially when attempting to board a large ship. They may have assault rifles and even RPGs. However, they’re often armed only with machetes–especially when it’s a smaller assault.

Where Do Most Pirate Attacks Occur?

Most pirate attacks occur in Somalia, the West African coast, the South China Sea, and the Indian subcontinent. Modern piracy happens in countries with little law enforcement where key maritime trade routes pass through.

The IMB Piracy Reporting Centre offers a live map of all recent piracy incidents. [4]

The combination of those two factors–ineffective law enforcement and nearby trade routes–is what makes a country prone to piracy. Pirates need to be able to stow away hijacked ships somewhere they won’t draw attention, and this usually isn’t possible in countries with heavily guarded coasts. [5]

Most pirate attacks come from opportunistic groups, and not necessarily from organized crime. Usually, these are people that live in precarious conditions and see the chance to become rich quickly.

How Do Ships Defend Against Pirates?

Ships defend against pirates by hiring private security services, keeping watch at all times for suspicious activity, and being ready to flee from assaulting ships. Many governments patrol the seas in an attempt to curb piracy.

Maritime companies and governments from around the world have adopted defensive measures against pirates. The US Navy has deployed naval patrols in several key areas. Governments of countries with a lot of piracy, such as India, the Philippines, and Indonesia, have made strong and continued efforts to decrease maritime crime on their coasts.

On the private side, many ships contract private security companies to guard them as they cross through particularly dangerous spots.

Some experts question the sustainability of these solutions. Guarding cargo ships costs companies and governments millions of dollars, increasing the costs of maritime shipping.

However, the effort seems to be paying off. Although piracy remains rampant in places such as Nigeria and Somalia, piracy incidents are becoming less common in many places that used to be pirate hotspots. [6]

This is in no small part due to the efforts of the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre, an ONG based in Kuala Lumpur that offers free reporting services and collaborates closely with state authorities. The adoption of private security services has also played a big role.

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