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“Did you ever get to see an elephant in the wild before they became extinct?”

photograph of elephant

By John Cruden, Catherine Novelli and Dan Ashe

“Did you ever get to see an elephant in the wild before they became extinct?”  This is a question children may soon be asking unless we take immediate action.  Wildlife trafficking–not just of elephants, but also of rhinos, tigers, great apes, exotic birds, and many other species–has exploded in recent years to become a multibillion-dollar criminal enterprise with increasingly grave and potentially irreversible consequences.  The scourge of wildlife trafficking threatens conservation efforts, national security, the rule of law, regional stability, and the sustainable livelihoods of communities.  So what are we doing to stop this problem?   

Today, the United States launched an Implementation Plan for the President’s National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, which will be a roadmap to fighting poaching and illegal wildlife trade.  The plan focuses on three key areas:  strengthening law enforcement domestically and globally, reducing demand, and building international cooperation.  Wildlife trafficking is a global problem that demands a global solution.  We are determined to be a part of that solution, and we will continue to work closely in our efforts with foreign governments, non-governmental organizations, the private sector, community leaders, and civil society to achieve this goal. 

Strong law enforcement is critical to stopping criminals engaged in wildlife crime.  The U.S. Department of Justice has indicted, prosecuted, and secured convictions in numerous cases of trafficking in internationally protected species, such as elephant ivory, rhinoceros horn, narwhal tusk,   turtles, and reptiles.  Investigative efforts led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service targeted traffickers in rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory, and other wildlife products, concentrating on organized smuggling rings, middlemen, and art and antique dealers.  Operation Crash–named after the collective term for a herd of rhinoceros–has led to significant prison terms and fines for those involved, as well as the forfeiture of millions of dollars in cash, gold bars, rhino horn, and luxury vehicles and jewelry. 

To respond effectively to wildlife trafficking, most countries need to enact more robust laws while enhancing their investigative, law enforcement, and judicial capacity to stem the corruption and illicit flow of money associated with wildlife trafficking.  In 2014, the Department of State’s capacity-building efforts centered on training programs for our foreign counterparts in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, strengthening national legislative, investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial processes to enforce wildlife laws.  The Department of State supported approximately 20 training programs across the law enforcement spectrum, helping more than 30 countries combat wildlife trafficking more effectively.  The programs also provided an opportunity to improve international cooperation on wildlife trafficking investigations, since this international threat requires a transnational response.

Many Americans are surprised to learn that our nation ranks among the highest in the consumption of wildlife and wildlife products, both legal and illegal. To demonstrate global leadership and limit opportunities open to traffickers in the United States, we have begun tightening domestic regulations around the trade in wildlife, and elevated awareness of the plight of elephants, rhinos and other highly trafficked species in an effort to curtail demand.  In 2014, the Fish and Wildlife Service banned all commercial imports of ivory into the United States, and will propose a near complete ban on trade in ivory within the United States this year.  And we destroyed six tons of ivory taken in law enforcement raids and seizures over the past 20 years to send a global message that ivory must be rendered valueless as a commodity and the trade in elephant ivory crushed.

Building on these efforts, we will continue to take measures in the United States to enhance our own law enforcement capabilities while supporting foreign governments with technical assistance, training, and analytical tools to build their capacity.  We will also use diplomatic cooperation tools, such as the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, to bolster international action on combating wildlife trafficking. 

Decreasing demand for illegal wildlife and wildlife products is critical.  In cooperation with our partners, we will continue to raise public awareness of the harmful impact from these purchases through public service announcements, media campaigns, and community outreach.  We will work with the tourism and transportation sectors, including airlines, hotel chains, restaurants and online retailers to support their commitment to halt the sale of illegal wildlife and wildlife products.  We will encourage foreign governments and corporations in major consumer countries to lead by example and eliminate illegal wildlife and wildlife products from official functions while strengthening local policies and enforcement. 

Our diplomatic engagement on this issue is at the highest levels of government, and coordinated on-the-ground efforts.  While we aim to take the profit out of wildlife crime and increase the risks for its perpetrators, we are also fully committed to helping people in wildlife/biodiversity hotspots by strengthening social and economic incentives in their communities to protect wildlife. To be successful, conservation efforts must benefit both wildlife and the people who share an ecosystem.  To cite just one key example, wild elephant populations generate orders of magnitude more in revenue to local economies from tourism than they ever can from the illegal sale of their ivory.

Many protected and endangered species faced a difficult year in 2014.  Elephants reached a dangerous tipping point with an average of more than 20,000 African elephants killed per year since 2010.  Pangolins, which are found in tropical areas in Asia and Africa and closely resemble a scaly anteater, are now the most trafficked species to date.  A record number of rhinos were killed in South Africa last year, with 1,215 animals poached in 2014 alone.  Despite this grim picture, there is still reason for hope.  When the Chinese government joined international efforts to end the consumption of shark fin soup–which has contributed to the deaths of some 70 million sharks each year–by banning its consumption at state dinners, shark fin sales reportedly dropped by 50-70 percent.  This demonstrates that progress is possible when governments take action, civil society raises awareness, and companies refuse to support wildlife trafficking.

Given the enormous consequences of the scourge of wildlife trafficking, we all have a moral obligation to fight it.  Future generations are relying on us to take on a leadership role and act now.  Do you want to help?  Share this blog and let others know the importance of ending the illegal trade in wildlife!

The authors are Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Assistant Attorney General of the United States for the Environment and Natural Resources, respectively

You can learn more about U.S. State Department efforts to stem combat wildlife trafficking here and by following the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs on Twitter @StateDeptOES and Facebook.

Updated April 7, 2017