Fighting Wildlife Crime: New U.S. Strategy Broadens Scope

U.S. takes leadership role to protect endangered wildlife and enhance global security.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."