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Attorney General Jeff Sessions Delivers Remarks at Forum on Combating Wildlife Poaching and Trafficking


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Good morning, I would like to welcome you all to the Department of Justice and to this important forum about combating the scourge of wildlife trafficking.

Before we start, I want to update you on the ongoing investigation into the suspicious packages. FBI, ATF, Secret Service, and our state and local partners are working tirelessly to follow every lead. I can assure you that we are dedicating every available resource to this effort. I am receiving frequent updates from Director Wray and his team. And I can tell you this: we will find the person or persons responsible. We will bring them to justice.

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of representing the United States at the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade. I was proud to lead a strong federal delegation as the United States joined with 80 other nations to re-affirm our commitment to this fight. 

As I stated at the London Conference, the United States views the poaching and trafficking of protected wildlife as a threat to good governance, a threat to the rule of law, and a challenge to our stewardship responsibilities for this good earth. Ending this criminality, with its devastating consequences, is a worldwide conservation imperative.

Shortly after he took office, President Trump issued an executive order that identified wildlife trafficking as an important category of transnational organized crime.  We at DOJ embrace that charge. 

Poachers, wildlife smugglers, and black market merchants operate all over the world.  Their criminal networks cross borders, transport their illegal goods worldwide, and sell them to the highest bidder.  The United States government, wherever possible, will take action with our partners worldwide to disrupt and dismantle these criminal networks.

This illegal trade generates as much as $23 billion annually worldwide. Just one kilogram of rhino horn can sell for as much as $70,000 in some markets.

These criminals must and can be stopped.

Future generations must not say that the actions of the nations of the world were too little and too late, while great species disappeared forever.

We simply cannot abide such a commerce, derived from the illegal slaughter of protected wildlife, to enrich criminals and criminality around the world.

Over the course of the last four decades, African elephant populations are believed to have declined from 1.3 million to less than 400,000 today.

African rhino populations have declined even more dramatically.

And over the course of the last century, Asian tiger populations have declined more than 90%.

The United States, under the strong leadership of President Trump, is committed to the fight to stop wildlife trafficking now – before it is too late.  

While much progress has occurred, we acknowledge that many substantial challenges remain.

First, we need to close the markets to these products. The U.S. is leading the world in cutting off trade in ivory and other restricted wildlife items.

We hope that more nations will follow. Profitable and, too often, illegal markets for these products provide an incentive for poaching.

Second, we need to cut off the flow of financing to the traffickers and poachers and their criminal benefactors. Depriving these multi-product criminal organizations of funds – whether from the drug trade, human trafficking, or wildlife crimes – is crucial.

Pat Hovakimian – the Department’s Director of Counter Transnational Organized Crime – joins us here today. He works along with other experts every day to block the flow of illicit funds from wildlife crimes.

Third, we must do more to cut off the traffickers’ transportation routes—on air, land, and sea—and block their use of the darknet to facilitate illegal trafficking of all types.

Fourth, we need to take a closer look at extradition laws and agreements. It should be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for poachers and smugglers in one country to escape prosecution by fleeing to other nations. It cannot be that criminals can continue their illegal activities and escape punishment by going to a country that won’t extradite them.

Fifth, we need to consider enhancing criminal penalties for those who engage in this illegality. Serious wildlife crimes merit significant sentences.

Regrettably, in many countries, arrests for these crimes are too rarely made and sentences, if imposed at all, are often not carried out.  

Sixth, we need to find new and better ways to tackle wildlife challenges in the nations the U.S. State Department has identified as “countries of concern” and “focus countries.” This includes nations like Laos, where the Justice Department, with funding assistance from the State Department, recently deployed Mark Romley to be our very first Regional Resident Legal Advisor to focus exclusively on counter-wildlife trafficking issues. 

Mark is a prosecutor in ENRD who for the last three months has been on the front lines of our enforcement efforts in Laos.

Seventh, we need the resources to get the job done. In London, we announced that the Trump Administration will fund more than $90 million in counter-wildlife trafficking programs in the coming year. This is a substantial commitment, and just part of the long-term U.S. effort to tackle this conservation imperative.

Today, we bring together experienced prosecutors, investigators, and government leaders who tackle wildlife crime or who have experience with other transnational organized crime groups. In addition, we have those from intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, academia, and the private sector who are at the forefront of efforts to protect treasured animals from poachers and criminal networks. This is a very valuable assembly.

What do we hope to accomplish today?

In our first discussion, we will hear from those who have been on the ground, going toe-to-toe against the criminals profiting from this carnage.

We will hear from leaders across the federal government, including:

  • Wayne Hettenbach, an experienced prosecutor who supervises ENRD’s wildlife crimes cases;
  • Dave Hubbard, the Special Agent in Charge of International Operations in the Office of Law Enforcement at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service;
  • Deputy Assistant Attorney General Bruce Swartz, who serves as the Department’s Counselor for International Affairs;
  • And many others.

We’ll ask them, what are you seeing? What is working? What is not? 

It is time to take a hard look at where we are and what we have learned from our efforts and ask the tough questions:

  • What challenges is law enforcement facing on the ground in these countries where poaching and trafficking has become a crisis?
  • How do we close off the transportation routes that smugglers use to move these illicit products?
  • How do we cut off the flow of funds to these criminals?

Following our first discussion, we will take a short break to look at the problem from a different angle.

My good friend, film director and producer Ron Maxwell, will speak about the power of film to shed light on wildlife trafficking’s devastating effects. I am grateful to Ron for introducing us to film producer Kate Brooks, and to Kate for agreeing to share with us a brief excerpt from The Last Animals, her award-winning documentary on poaching.

After viewing a segment of the film, Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio will kick off the second round of discussion, which will focus on identifying solutions, strategies, and priorities for enhancing wildlife trafficking enforcement.

At the conclusion of the forum, we will have an opportunity for open comment from our distinguished attendees here today. 

So, again, thank you all for joining this important forum.

Now, let me turn now to Acting Assistant Attorney General Wood to begin the dialogue. 

Updated October 26, 2018