National Geographic Daily News
Photo of Kenya Wildlife rangers with a dead elephant and large tusk.

Undercover rangers from the Kenya Wildlife Service detusk a bull elephant killed by a spear in 2011; it is unknown if the animal was killed by poachers or local people.

Photograph by Brent Stirton, National Geographic

Laura Parker

for National Geographic

Published February 11, 2014

President Obama's new national strategy to combat illegal wildlife trafficking around the globe is intended to be far more sweeping than curbing the poaching of African elephants.

It is also aimed at combating organized crime in unstable African countries.

"Record high demand for wildlife products, coupled with inadequate preventative measures and weak institutions, has resulted in an explosion of illicit trade in wildlife in recent years," Obama said in a statement. "Today, because of the actions of poachers, species like elephants and rhinoceroses face the risk of significant decline or even extinction. But it does not have to be that way. We can take action to stop these illicit networks and ensure that our children have the chance to grow up in a world with and experience for themselves the wildlife we know and love."

The administration's announcement comes at a critical point in environmental security, as well-armed crime syndicates have moved into the highly profitable ivory trade and are using it to fund other illegal activities, such as the drug trade and arms trafficking. The plan is the result of a six-month cabinet-level effort led by Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Eric Holder, and is billed as a "whole of government" approach to breaking up wildlife trafficking networks.

"The strategy will strengthen U.S. leadership on addressing the serious and urgent conservation and global security threat posed by illegal trade in wildlife," a White House statement says.

The plan will be unveiled at a conference of world leaders on the illegal wildlife trade to be held February 12 and 13 in London. In a taped video interview to be presented at the conference, Prince Charles made a plea calling for greater efforts to stop the illegal wildlife trade.

"It now poses a grave threat not only to the survival of some of the world's most treasured species but also to economic and political stability in many areas around the world," the prince said, according to Reuters.

Multibillion-Dollar Business

Once the occupation of impoverished local hunters, the illegal poaching of elephant tusks and rhino horns has become a global multibillion-dollar business that now involves mass slaughters by a well-organized network of poachers, some of which are allied with terrorist groups.

A United Nations report published last September cites numerous mass slaughters that have occurred, including a 2012 operation by a Sudanese poaching gang that killed more than 200 elephants in northern Cameroon.

As a result, forest elephant herds in central Africa have been decimated and now face the possibility of extinction within a decade.

Trafficking of African elephant ivory was outlawed worldwide by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1989. The treaty helped reduce the killing of elephants, but the number of killings began to rise again in 2007.

Photo of an anesthetized white rhino cow in a field after a dehorning procedure to deter poachers.” width=
Photograph by Brent Stirton, National Geographic
An anesthetized white rhino rests in a field after undergoing a dehorning procedure to deter poachers.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that the current slaughter wipes out 30,000 elephants a year. The commonly accepted figure for the number of African elephants left in the wild is 500,000, but Trevor Jones and Katarzyna Nowak, who direct the Udzungwa Elephant Project in southern Tanzania, believe that "half that number is closer to the truth."

As senior administration official said the U.S. is one of the largest ivory markets in the world and that "much of the ivory either passes through or ends up in the U.S."

The U.S., another senior administration official said, "is not just a market for consumption but also a transshipment location. We see criminal syndicates shipping products to the U.S. and shipping them out of the U.S. to places like China to be worked."

Illegal rhino horn commands a price as high as $45,000 a pound, roughly equivalent to the price of gold. Illegal ivory now sells for $1,500 a pound.

Three-Pronged Plan

The Obama Administration says it will mount its effort on three fronts:

  • Toughening domestic and global enforcement
  • Reducing demand for illegally traded wildlife at home and abroad
  • Strengthening international partnerships to combat wildlife poaching

Conservation groups say a more comprehensive U.S. effort will enhance the country's ability to persuade other nations, such as China, which has the world's largest ivory market, to work more aggressively to curtail the illegal ivory trade.

Susan Lieberman, executive director of conservation policy for the Wildlife Conservation Society, says she is hopeful that "the full weight of the U.S. government" will be more effective at ending the illegal wildlife trade.

"We need other agencies like the Justice Department or Treasury to get involved with money laundering and looking at money flows in the same way the U.S. looks at arms trafficking, because these crimes are connected to wildlife poaching," Lieberman says.

Destruction of Ivory Stockpiles

Last November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for the first time, staged a crushing of six tons of seized ivory to publicize its efforts to curtail the illegal trade. Last month, China crushed six tons in the city of Dongguan, in the southern province of Guangdong.

Two weeks after that, Hong Kong announced plans to burn 28 tons over the next two years.

Photo of personal suitcases of Chinese Nationals caught with contraband ivory seized at Jomo Kenyata International airport, Nairobi, Kenya.” width=
Photograph by Brent Stirton, National Geographic
Customs searches of the personal suitcases of Chinese nationals uncovered contraband ivory at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2011.

Meanwhile, the arrest of more than 400 alleged wildlife poachers in the month-long Operation Cobra II was announced today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Agents from 28 countries seized 36 rhino horns and more than three metric tons of elephant ivory, more than 10,000 turtles, 1,000 skins of protected species, more than 10,000 European eels, and 200 metric tons of endangered rosewood.

The investigation included the first ever successful partnership between Chinese and African agents and resulted in the arrest of an ivory trafficking kingpin who was funneling large amounts of poached elephant tusks from Africa to China.

Map showing countries where ivory has been crushed or burned.” width=
NG Staff. Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, CNN, BBC, Kenya Wildlife Service

Total Ivory Ban Called For

Some conservationists said the ban on ivory sales in the U.S. does not go far enough.

"We want a ban. We want them to take that next step," says Jeffrey Flocken, North American director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "All major wildlife conservation groups have said the U.S. needs to ban ivory and use diplomatic skills to create leverage on other countries. This is the only way we're going to save the elephant at this time."

A total ban would require Congress to pass new legislation, and so far none is proposed, although Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, urged the administration to take the "strongest possible administrative action" on the illegal ivory trade.

An administration official suggested that the partial ban announced today will have essentially the same effect.

New regulations tighten existing limits on ivory sales in three ways:

  • Commercial imports are prohibited, including, for the first time, antiques.
  • Commercial exports are prohibited, except for antiques, and a loophole allowing for the export of items acquired before February 2, 1976, has been closed.
  • Ivory sales across state lines will be prohibited, except for antiques.

Last month, New York Assemblyman Robert Sweeney proposed that all ivory sales in New York be prohibited. Noting that New York City is one of the largest markets for ivory sales, Sweeney urged his fellow legislators to "close the market that is driving the elephant to extinction and helping to finance terrorism."

34 comments
Jay Trilling
Jay Trilling

This is such a disgrace of humanity.  I can't imagine what those poachers / villagers who are doing these killings, are getting in reward for commiting these atrocious acts.   Once these animals are gone forever, God forbid, who knows what kind of barbarism  these people will resort to next.  

John Lewis
John Lewis

Again it is deeply a pathetic effort on our Government's part to stop hate, harm, and threat of extinction. Our wildlife at all levels needs our help. We are the reason they need our help. They need us to protect them from ourselves. The bees need our help. Just as we allowed the Buffalo to be wiped out in a matter of three years or less, we as a country that is supposed to be setting the standard for other is still everyday allowing life to vanish  for the love of money. The majority of all the crime and the dollars involved some how end up back in the United States or goes through it. Publicizing a piss poor effort as nothing but an effort isn't good enough sorry. Action requires a result. Conversation and discussion....well put a lid on it. 

I wish we would have...Why didn't we....is what this country does best. 

We have plenty money for the Super Bowl, and every other fun flipping activity that is in regard to entertainment. We just can't come up with any for a greater cause that doesn't invlove us being first or having fun or making money.

The environment and wildlife in this world don't have a chance. No one cares enough, or not enough of the powers to be care enough to sacrifice their comfort.

Out of sight out of mind, can't see the problem from my house. 

Sad.     

Beverley Maher
Beverley Maher

PLEASE PLEASE  STOP!! there is so much of alsorts of animal crulty iv seen,and it sickens me to no I live in a world of EVIL MURDERERS and CRUEL people that call themselves human beings,goverment need to work harder and put a stop to this A.S.A.P.

Nicolas Dufour
Nicolas Dufour

Le vrai problème dans tout ça ce n'est pas les chasseurs qui font le pire pour gagner leur vie, mais plutôt la forte demande mondial et surtout chinoise pour ces produits qui ont une valeur marchande extrêmement élevée ! Consommer intelligemment... c'est le meilleur geste que l'on puissent faire. 

Susil Vidanapathirana
Susil Vidanapathirana

Governments are just scratching the tip of the iceberg. Either they intentionally do not want to stop the trade (that is what I honestly think) or just do not care. These proposed regulations of US will not stop the trade for sure and we are going to be the last generation who witness these endangered species in the wild. While the governments are sleeping, there are others who can help prevent this, such as; celebrities, respected figures and wealthy corporations. They are also not interested except for very few. Ultimately home sapiens will be recorded in the world history as the species who decimated most of the treasured flora and founa from the face of earth.

Wing  Kong
Wing Kong

The hunters are disgusting and atrocious.

Wing  Kong
Wing Kong

Praying for these poor animals.

Donna C.
Donna C.

Despicable.  Absolutely horrifying.  They tell the world they are starving, yet they kill beautiful animals for money????  I don't have the words to express what I am feeling.  Sick world we live in.  Just sick.

Naim Onat
Naim Onat

the men are very dangerous in the world and broke the world balance...

Imaculada Figueiredo
Imaculada Figueiredo

No, no, my friends. 

The teeth ELEPHANTS COULD be worth a fortune, in my house I dont want to.

Ziad Taha
Ziad Taha

those chinese are animal killers and africans are ignorant .... i hate to see this.

Anahit Nalbandyan
Anahit Nalbandyan

We humans consider ourselves "smart"comparing to other animals on our planet. Misuse,waste,murder are not smart choices, as in business so in nature. Burning the house we live in and torturing/killing the neighbors we live with is not smart as each of them contribute a good to our planet. Animals do not waste, they control the environment for many years and are smarter contributors to nature than humans. Humans may have a smarter brain, but that doesn't prevent stupid decisions as seen from history. 

Paula Espinal
Paula Espinal

Actually is a new strategy? in fact but no in paper

Cynthia Carlson
Cynthia Carlson

Will this be enough? Do we have the will to put an end to this reprehensible practice once and for all? When will humans understand that the other species on this planet have the right to be here, unfettered by human exploitation? Until that happens, I fear the other species are doomed and, in dooming them, we doom ourselves. I believe we live at a pivotal time.

George Britton
George Britton

-  It's amazing how people believe they have rights over the world given to us by God. Animals or Human, both species have the right to co-exist with out the sense of authority.

KAVETA M.
KAVETA M.

I honestly hope that some sort of realization comes to the world on how greed can cause such mass destruction to our animal kingdom.

our species has been the most destructive species that ever lived

Long live the good people that remains on our planet and who continue to fight for animals

lee ding
lee ding

we people are too greddy ,we must stop this foolish activity 

Alexandre Silva
Alexandre Silva

Money makes the world goes round, vanity and greed for ivory pieces feed the slaughter and low educated men destroy because it's easier than build. It's a vicious cycle that will collapse with the extiction of the species. The same happened before and keeps happening. The oceans are dying because of the industry, forests are dying because of the misuse of wood and expansion of cattle raising and agriculture. Mankind is like a parasite to the planet, we do worry about it but just a few of us take care to avoid destruction. 

Chinchan Zu
Chinchan Zu

i think giving jobs to increase the livelihood of people over there is also a good idea. theyll be left with nothing when their source of living is gone. just sayin

Breana Jane Ferguson
Breana Jane Ferguson

SO SAD!!!! THE WIDESPREAD OF IGNORANCE IS GOING TO KILL US ALL! Without Rhino there can be no human. Without human there can be no rhino.

Alexandre Silva
Alexandre Silva

@Susil Vidanapathirana  Humans don't see themselves as part of the environment but above of it. Our arrogance exists because we evolved and made changes to afford living on several places, we have created big cities and facilities to our life. But the price paid was too high, concerning to the planet's health.

Now, some ignorants still treat other animals as trophies. It's hard for me to understand. Why would someone wish a lion's head, an elephant's ivory or the hands of a gorilla at home? 

The Earth is going to take its toll and put men on the exactly place they belong. The planet is a living being and now she's sick. But will work on her cure nonetheless. And the wind and rain will wipe out the disease from the face of the Earth. Oceans and fire will help to clean the environment and then the human arrogance will be worthless and a lesson of humility will be learned.

Shantha Roberts
Shantha Roberts

@Wing Kong  Disagree. I think the people who are fueling the demand are the ones that are disgusting and atrocious. 

Riaan Franzsen
Riaan Franzsen

@Wing Kong  Absolutely sick! My grandchildren probably will never see them, and these animals are on my doorstep!  

Shantha Roberts
Shantha Roberts

@Donna C.  This is quite disturbing but your comment makes no sense. How exactly do you think they acquire food? They will get more food if they sell these animals then if they just consumed them. Do not confuse their desperation for greed. The most disturbing people are the end consumers, their willful ignorance and there supreme selfishness is what will bring the end to these beautiful creatures. 

Alexandre Silva
Alexandre Silva

@Anahit Nalbandyan  Humans don't see themselves as part of the environment but above of it. Our arrogance exists because we evolved and made changes to afford living on several places, we have created big cities and facilities to our life. But the price paid was too high, concerning to the planet's health.

Now, some ignorants still treat other animals as trophies. It's hard for me to understand. Why would someone wish a lion's head, an elephant's ivory or the hands of a gorilla at home? 

The Earth is going to take its toll and put men on the exactly place they belong. The planet is a living being and now she's sick. But will work on her cure nonetheless. And the wind and rain will wipe out the disease from the face of the Earth. Oceans and fire will help to clean the environment and then the human arrogance will be worthless and a lesson of humility will be learned.


Alexandre Silva
Alexandre Silva

@Cynthia Carlson  Humans don't see themselves as part of the environment but above of it. Our arrogance exists because we evolved and made changes to afford living on several places, we have created big cities and facilities to our life. But the price paid was too high, concerning to the planet's health.

Now, some ignorants still treat other animals as trophies. It's hard for me to understand. Why would someone wish a lion's head, an elephant's ivory or the hands of a gorilla at home? 

The Earth is going to take its toll and put men on the exactly place they belong. The planet is a living being and now she's sick. But will work on her cure nonetheless. And the wind and rain will wipe out the disease from the face of the Earth. Oceans and fire will help to clean the environment and then the human arrogance will be worthless and a lesson of humility will be learned.


Alexandre Silva
Alexandre Silva

@Cynthia Carlson  Humans don't see themselves as part of the environment but above of it. Our arrogance exists because we evolved and made changes to afford living on several places, we have created big cities and facilities to our life. But the price paid was too high, concerning to the planet's health.

Now, some ignorants still treat other animals as trophies. It's hard for me to understand. Why would someone wish a lion's head, an elephant's ivory or the hands of a gorilla at home? 

The Earth is going to take its toll and put men on the exactly place they belong. The planet is a living being and now she's sick. But will work on her cure nonetheless. And the wind and rain will wipe out the disease from the face of the Earth. Oceans and fire will help to clean the environment and then the human arrogance will be worthless and a lesson will be learned.


Alexandre Silva
Alexandre Silva

@George Britton  Humans don't see themselves as part of the environment but above of it. Our arrogance exists because we evolved and made changes to afford living on several places, we have created big cities and facilities to our life. But the price paid was too high, concerning to the planet's health.

Now, some ignorants still treat other animals as trophies. It's hard for me to understand. Why would someone wish a lion's head, an elephant's ivory or the hands of a gorilla at home? 

The Earth is going to take its toll and put men on the exactly place they belong. The planet is a living being and now she's sick. But will work on her cure nonetheless. And the wind and rain will wipe out the disease from the face of the Earth. Oceans and fire will help to clean the environment and then the human arrogance will be worthless and a lesson of humility will be learned.


Alexandre Silva
Alexandre Silva

@Shantha Roberts @Wing Kong  All of them are. The point is who is the most?

I agree with you. A more developed person shouldn't manipulate other people or use money to puppet them to do evil doings in their behalf.

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