In 2014, U.S. marines traveled to the West African country of Gabon to train rangers to fight ivory trafficking. In September 2015, the U.S. embassy in Costa Rica supported training of customs and border inspectors on how to enforce the international convention on wildlife trade. And the U.S. Agency for International Development has long worked in Asia to train government officials in law enforcement techniques to disrupt the wildlife trafficking supply chain.
As the second biggest market in the world for wildlife products, the U.S. has felt a responsibility to help other countries crack down on wildlife trafficking. A renewed commitment came in 2013 when President Barack Obama issued an executive order that established a presidential task force to combat the illegal trade. And today, new legislation proposed in Congress could carry the U.S. another step forward.
The END Wildlife Trafficking Act, as it’s called, aims to help other countries strengthen protections for vulnerable wildlife and clamp down on wildlife trafficking. Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, and Arizona’s Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican, sponsored the legislation.
“Our bill looks at this problem for what it is—a complicated, multi-faceted issue that demands an interagency response and an on the ground approach that coordinates regional, national, and local action in countries threatened by wildlife crime,” Coons said in a press release.
Although it’s difficult to measure the value of the illegal wildlife trade, it’s estimated to be a multibillion dollar industry involving tens of thousands of species across the globe, from African elephants to Indian star tortoises. It has become highly organized, with crime syndicates operating on multiple continents, taking advantage of the same trade routes as drug and weapons traffickers. It thrives on corruption and weak governance, and in some cases, it finances terrorism.
If passed, the bill would ensure that the U.S. plays a big role in helping to end international wildlife trade. It requires the wildlife trafficking task force to work with countries affected by wildlife crime to analyze threats and help them put together a “strategic plan” to fix the problem. Under the bill, U.S. agencies would be authorized to help countries strengthen law enforcement and meet their plans’ goals.
The bill also says that the secretary of state should continue talks with China, the top market for wildlife products, to eliminate both countries’ illegal wildlife trade—and begin negotiations with Thailand and Vietnam (the main consumer of rhino horn) on bilateral agreements aimed at reducing demand for wildlife products. Obama and China's president, Xi Jinping, made an unprecedented public pledge in September to put a stop to all ivory trading.
To monitor progress, the task force would have to submit an annual report to Congress.
In recent months, politicians have paid attention to the wildlife crime crisis. In November, the House passed the Global Anti-Poaching Act, which would increase penalties for wildlife traffickers. Another bill proposed in January, the Wildlife Trafficking Enforcement Act, would do the same. And in July, Obama announced new restrictions that would impose an almost complete ban on the domestic ivory trade.
This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.