Yesterday, the Obama administration announced an ambitious new strategy to help tackle the global illegal wildlife trade, including a near-complete ban on commercial ivory. The new strategy will not only push over a dozen federal agencies to make fighting wildlife trafficking a new priority, but will also focus on reducing demand for wildlife parts and actively engaging the international community. The U.S. is the world’s second largest destination for illegal wildlife trafficking after China.
“Today, because of the actions of poachers, species like elephants and rhinoceroses face the risk of significant decline or
even extinction,” U.S. President, Barack Obama, said in a statement. “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.”
Over the past decade, wildlife trafficking has exploded putting iconic species such as elephants, rhinos, and tigers at renewed risk of extinction, while imperiling thousands of lesser-known species, from turtles to slow lorises to pangolins. For many species the toll is impossible to estimate, but some numbers are available: last year poachers killed over rhinos in South Africa alone, while the U.S. State Department says that an estimated 35,000 elephants were slaughtered for their tusks in 2012. Worth an estimated $19 billion in illicit funds, wildlife trafficking has become the fourth largest criminal activity after drugs, counterfeiting, and human trafficking.
White rhino in South Africa. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
“Like other forms of illicit trade, wildlife trafficking undermines security across nations. Well-armed, well-equipped, and well-organized networks of criminals and corrupt officials exploit porous borders and weak institutions to profit from trading in poached wildlife,” Obama said in a statement.
Moreover, concerns are rising that funds garnered from slaughtering wildlife are helping to fuel terrorist groups and rogue militias across Africa. Experts also say that many of those involved in the trade are also connected other criminal activities such as corruption, drugs, human-trafficking, illegal logging, and weapons dealing.
The Obama administration’s new strategy will seek to raise the profile of wildlife trafficking among various federal agencies, cooperate with foreign governments and groups to bring down wildlife kingpins, and make the trade unprofitable and risky for criminals.
“We will seize the financial gains of wildlife traffickers in prosecutions, using all appropriate tools: fines and penalties, both criminal and civil, forfeiture of assets and instrumentalities, and restitution for those victimized by wildlife crimes,” reads the National Strategy For Combating Wildlife Trafficking. “Where possible, we will ensure that funds generated through prosecutions are directed back to conservation efforts or to combating wildlife trafficking.”
The strategy will also close most loopholes for ivory sales in the U.S. While ostensibly illegal, commercial ivory has been allowed to be sold domestically in the U.S. through a series of loopholes in the laws. The new rules will only allow the import, export, and sales between states of antique ivory. Sales within the same states must come from ivory imported pre-1990 for African elephants and pre-1975 for Asian.
The new strategy also proposes to decrease demand for wildlife products via public relations campaigns and working with the various sectors where the trade is most common.
“We must team more effectively with the transportation industry, the tourism sector, restaurant and hotel associations, those in the exotic pet industry, companies operating internet marketplaces, and other private sector entities in this effort,” reads the strategy.
Finally, the strategy pledges to build a global coalition to stamp out illegal wildlife trafficking by using diplomacy, strengthening organizations like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and including wildlife trafficking in future international agreements.
African elephant in South Africa. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
“The United States must curtail its own role in the illegal trade in wildlife and must lead in addressing this issue on the global stage,” the strategy concludes.
Conservation groups were enthusiastic about the new strategy.
“President Obama has elevated illegal wildlife trafficking to a priority issue for more than a dozen federal agencies, reflecting the fact that it has grown into one of the most profitable criminal industries in the world,” WWF President and CEO Carter Roberts said in a statement.
The head of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Cristián Samper, echoed this sentiment.
“I am encouraged to see a unified, cross-cutting plan, including an emphasis on site-based conservation action, which will better equip the United States to take on all facets of this crisis—stopping the killing, stopping the trafficking, and stopping the demand.”
Both Roberts and Samper also serve as members of the U.S. Advisory Council to the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking.
The U.S. governments announcement coincides with a two-day conference beginning today in London on wildlife trafficking, attended by a number of world leaders and conservation experts.
(01/29/2014) A four-year investigation by WildLifeRisk, a Hong Kong-based marine conservation group, has found that a single factory in China’s Zhejiang Province slaughters some 600 whale sharks a year to produce oil for cosmetics and health supplements.
(01/24/2014) The government of Hong Kong will destroy 28 tons of ivory confiscated from traffickers, reports CNN. The announcement, which comes just weeks after China destroyed six tons of seized ivory, suggests that the leaders of the world’s largest market for ivory may be getting more serious about addressing a global poaching boom, say conservationists.
(01/22/2014) One quarter of all shark and ray species are threatened with extinction, according to a new study published in the open-access journal eLife. The paper analyzed the threat and conservation status of 1,041 species of chondrichthyans—the class of fish whose skeletons are made of cartilage instead of bone which includes sharks, rays, skates and chimaeras—and found this group to be among the most threatened animals in the world.
(01/17/2014) In another sign that Africa’s poaching crisis has gotten completely out of control, South Africa lost 1,004 rhinos to poachers last year. According to the numbers released today by the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, 2013 was the worst year yet for rhino poaching in the country with more than 3 rhinos killed every day.
(01/12/2014) Police in Indonesia’s Aceh province have arrested two wildlife trafficking suspects allegedly behind five tiger poaching rings operating in the forests of northern Sumatra. The arrests followed a months-long investigation and an undercover sting operation in which police seized thousands of dollars worth of illegal animal parts.
(01/06/2014) China authorities destroyed 6.1 tons of illegal ivory during a public event held in Guangzhou on Monday.
(01/03/2014) The Chinese government plans to destroy a stockpile of contraband elephant ivory and other seized wildlife products next week during a public ceremony in Guangzhou, reports the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
(12/20/2013) A newspaper story about the impact of the ivory trade has gone viral in China, raising awareness among millions of Chinese, reports the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The story, published November 15 in Southern Weekly, has been shared widely across Chinese web sites and social media.
(12/04/2013) Beginning next year, light planes and helicopters will undertake the first ever continent-wide aerial survey of Africa’s vanishing elephant populations. The hugely ambitious initiative, which will count elephant herds in 13 countries, is being funded by Microsoft founder, Paul Allen, through his Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.
(12/03/2013) Environmentalists have responded with alarm to a proposed amnesty permitting the registration of illegally captured elephants in Sri Lanka. Recent reports in Sri Lankan media have outlined the proposal, stating that during the amnesty period it would be possible to register elephant calves for a fee of about $7,600. Elephants are closely linked with Sri Lankan history and culture, and are considered sacred in both Buddhism and Hinduism. But the situation for elephants in the country is complicated.
(12/02/2013) As the African Elephant Summit open in Botswana today, conservationists released a new estimate of the number of African elephants lost to the guns of poachers last year: 22,000. Some 15,000 elephants killed in 42 sites across 27 countries on the continent, according to newly released data from the CITES program, Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE). But conservationists estimate another 7,000 went unreported. The number killed is a slight decrease over 2011 numbers of 25,000.
(12/01/2013) Raids in southern and eastern Africa yielded a stash of contraband linked to illegal poaching and logging, reports Interpol, which coordinated the operations.
(11/26/2013) The rhinoceros is one of the largest and most iconic animals to roam the earth. However, poaching for their horn, erroneously believed to have medicinal value, has led the IUCN Red List to classify three of the world’s five species as Critically Endangered. But, a new consumer report by the wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, finds that rhino horn consumers in Vietnam buy the illegal product as much to raise their social status as to attempt to treat a fever or hangover.
(11/10/2013) Authorities in Costa Rica have identified a new method used by fishermen to circumvent a ban on killing sharks for their fins. According to an INTERPOL alert, fishermen are now leaving a band of skin to keep the fin attached to the spine when they kill sharks. This approach takes advantage of an apparent loophole in regulations governing the shark fin trade.
(10/29/2013) A new public-service campaign in China will ask potential ivory and rhino horn buyers to see the victims of these illicit trades in a new light: as the “pandas of Africa.” The posters are a part of WildAid’s ‘Say No to Ivory and Rhino Horn’ campaign, which was launched earlier in the year.