Global Efforts to Stop Illicit Wildlife Trade: Are They Enough?

The film “Noah” is a Hollywood epic that recounts the biblical story of Noah’s struggle to save his family and a menagerie of animals from a flood that threatens to wipe out all other life on the planet. Beyond the bounds of sacred text and cinematic story-telling, there’s a modern-day flood occurring—one that is also devastating wildlife species, irreparably altering ecosystems, and stealing from future generations. The global trade in wildlife and wildlife products has escalated to alarming levels, fueled by increasing demand, burgeoning economies, and a phalanx of wildlife criminals, including organized criminal syndicates.

The substantial increase in the illicit wildlife trade is due in large part to the recent involvement of these criminal syndicates, which also traffic in narcotics, arms, and humans, and rely on corruption, force, and sophisticated trade networks to facilitate their illegal operations. They have vast arsenals of weapons and other equipment, including helicopters and night-vision goggles, ensuring that they can outgun and outrun most law enforcement agents as they expeditiously exploit wildlife. They have also murdered over 1,000 wildlife law enforcement officers over the past decade.

Terrorist organizations, including Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, the Janjaweed, and Al Shabaab—implicated in the September 2013 shopping mall attack in Kenya—are also reportedly involved in the illicit wildlife trade to sustain their operations or curry favor with corrupt officials. Their role in the trade has been described as a “grave menace” to national and regional security in central Africa by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The role of criminal syndicates and terrorists in the illegal wildlife trade has not gone unnoticed. Indeed, it has triggered increased national and international interest in this global scourge and a renewed commitment among many governments, including the United States, to tackle this problem.

In November 2012, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton addressed the illicit wildlife trade in a speech at a State Department event dedicated to the trade and its links to domestic and international security. Secretary Clinton laid out a four-part strategy to counter the increasing threat of wildlife crime that involved enhancing diplomatic outreach to foreign governments, initiating targeted campaigns to reduce demand for wildlife products, continuing to expand US-international capacity-building efforts, and developing new partnerships to combat wildlife crime.

Seven months later in Tanzania—one of the world’s most biodiverse countries and a hotspot for wildlife crime—President Obama signed an executive order combating wildlife trafficking. The order noted that “poaching of protected species and the illegal trade in wildlife and their derivative parts and products … represent an international crisis that continues to escalate” and that small scale, opportunistic poaching has expanded to include “coordinated slaughter commissioned by armed and organized criminal syndicates.” To address this crisis, the order established a presidential task force on wildlife trafficking and a complimentary citizen’s advisory council, and allocated $10 million for anti-poaching campaigns and technical assistance in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Actions to protect wildlife have also been initiated by NGOs and private individuals: The Clinton Global Initiative has joined with several international organizations to thwart elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade. Billionaires Warren Buffet and Paul Allen are funding wildlife protection projects in Africa. Google and other companies are donating funds or expertise to develop new technologies to fight wildlife crime. A number of urgent meetings between governments, scientists, and various stakeholders have taken place throughout the world to develop new strategies to slow or stop the illicit wildlife trade.

Not to be outdone, a number of other governments allocated additional funding to combat wildlife crime. Kenya has strengthened its wildlife protection laws, increasing the penalties for wildlife crime, and other countries are considering similar legislation. Judges in some countries, recognizing the severity of the illicit wildlife trade, have sentenced convicted wildlife criminals to pay substantial fines or spend years in jail to deter others from committing such crimes. Even China, a key country driving much of the illicit wildlife trade, is making some efforts to clamp down on illegal trading. These are signs of hope—though only time will tell if these efforts will be sustained or are merely temporary measures to give the perception of action.

At the multinational level, the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice has declared illicit wildlife trading a “serious crime,” providing expanded opportunities for legal assistance, asset seizure and forfeitures, and extraditions in response to wildlife crimes. INTERPOL, other law enforcement agencies, and governments are conducting global operations to combat wildlife crime and destroy criminal syndicates. Though other examples of such actions exist, these are merely baby steps in the massive strides required to identify wildlife criminals, dismantle criminal syndicates, and eliminate demand for illicit wildlife products.

To stem the slaughter of African elephants, several governments, including the United States, Belgium, Gabon, France, the Philippines, and China have recently destroyed all or portions of their confiscated ivory stockpiles. Hong Kong has also committed to destroying its massive ivory stockpile, and others will likely follow suit. These ivory “crush” events send a clear message to wildlife criminals that the trade in blood ivory is unacceptable and must end. Far more is required to end this trade, including the closure of domestic ivory markets in China and the United States, and campaigns to convince ivory buyers, particularly China’s burgeoning middle class, that owning ivory is not a symbol of wealth or importance but a token of cruelty and death.

Even the British royal family has joined the global fight against the illegal wildlife trade, with HRH The Prince of Wales (Prince Charles); HRH The Duke of Cambridge (Prince William); and HRH Prince Henry of Wales (Prince Harry) attending a high-level ministerial meeting in February 2014 in London (see box at left). Prince William has expressed a long-term commitment to the effort to end the illegal trade in wildlife. He has participated in the creation of anti-wildlife trafficking public service announcements and even asked that the royal family’s collection of ivory be destroyed.

Only days before the UK meeting, in the United States, the President’s Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking released a “National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking.” While not particularly detailed and lacking many outside-the-box ideas, the strategy identified three priorities: strengthening law enforcement, reducing demand for illegally traded wildlife, and expanding international cooperation and commitment.

The strategy lists a number of focal points in pursuit of these three goals: strengthening and improving enforcement of domestic, foreign and international wildlife laws; using administrative tools to quickly respond to the immediate poaching crises; seizing the assets of domestic and international criminals; improving the capacity to intercept illegal animals and items at ports both at home and abroad; developing new tools and technologies to combat wildlife crime; engaging in multinational enforcement efforts; attacking corruption that undermines wildlife law enforcement; supporting and partnering with governments and other stakeholders to reduce demand for wildlife products; and strengthening existing international wildlife trade agreements.

Though incomplete and lacking detail, the national strategy provides the United States an opportunity to be a global leader in the fight against wildlife crime. To demonstrate such leadership, the country must strengthen its own laws and abilities to crack down on such criminal activities. For instance, with only about 220 special agents and less than 140 port inspectors, the United States does not presently have the capacity to effectively stop federal wildlife crimes within its own borders. This must be corrected.

Globally, increasing the capacity of foreign governments to intercept illegal wildlife shipments and to investigate and successfully prosecute wildlife criminals are key tools in the war against the illicit wildlife trade. At present, too many of those arrested for wildlife crimes never pay for their crimes due to shoddy investigations and prosecutions. Furthermore, curtailing corruption that has become pervasive within governments is essential. Often, wildlife criminals and syndicate bosses use bribes or kickbacks to avoid capture, or they have “friends” in high ranking positions who facilitate their illegal activities. If such corruption cannot be stifled, effort and funds committed to combat wildlife crime will be wasted.

Similarly, without demand-reduction campaigns, efforts to shut down the illegal wildlife trade in source countries may be for naught. Such campaigns, though often expensive and time-consuming, can be successful, as demonstrated by the success in helping turn people against the shark fin trade in Asia. Similar campaigns have been initiated to reduce demand for elephant ivory and rhino horn. 

The plight of rhinos, elephants and tigers, and the links between the illegal wildlife trade, criminal syndicates, and terrorism, triggered the development of the US national strategy. However, the illegal trade, which may be worth as much as $19 billion annually, adversely affects a proverbial ark full of species, from insects to the great whales and everything in between.

It is unclear if the enormous profits that drive the illegal trade can be overcome through global action. Sadly, though the world’s governments have an immense capacity to deliberate, negotiate, and produce endless documents, reports, and studies, their ability to act with the required urgency is often hindered by a lack of political will, corruption, enforcement deficiencies, and inadequate resources. The US national strategy is a product of hours of meetings and deliberations, with the words on its pages representing a start toward achieving a greater goal. But, without far more effort, it won’t save a single animal.

It is too early to tell if these new initiatives will succeed in significantly reducing the illicit trade in wildlife. Can the global community prevail against a cadre of wildlife criminals seeking quick profits and unconcerned about the damage being done to species, habitats, or people? Or will massive profit margins, a plethora of poachers, minimum legal penalties, rampant governmental corruption, and intense demand conspire to make these efforts only temporarily plug holes in a dike holding back a flood of extinctions?

As one of the world’s largest importers and exporters of wildlife products, the United States has an obligation to step up and fight against the illegal wildlife trade regardless of the costs and without political interference. Laws must be strengthened and the judiciary educated about the scourge of wildlife crime, since most penalties imposed against convicted wildlife criminals are too lenient and provide no deterrent effect. While its proposals to restrict domestic ivory trade and clamp down on ivory imports is an adequate first step (see box at right), the domestic ivory market in the United States must be closed, and similar rules must be established to end the domestic trade in other imperiled species.

The United States must also substantially strengthen its laws related to international trading of wildlife. Current laws that largely reflect international standards imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) are inadequate. Indeed, though the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking focuses on the illicit trade, the “legal” trade has increased exponentially without sufficient regulation to ensure that such trade is “sustainable” (or even legal). There are numerous examples of purportedly legal exports of CITES-listed wildlife or wildlife products to the United States for which the scientific evidence indicates that the exports are actually illegal. This “legal” trade to feed American demand for exotic pets, exotic leather products, and other wildlife commodities is contributing to the precipitous decline of species.

Ultimately, gaining control of the wildlife trade—legal and illegal—will take political will, creativity, and money to stop those who are robbing us and future generations of our wildlife. With the accelerating rate of species extinctions—often linked to anthropogenic impacts—if more species go extinct as a result of our greed, vanity, ignorance, and appetites, it will be a shameful legacy to pass on to our children.

Hollywood has Noah to save animals from extinction; we don’t. For today’s wildlife, the only hope is a global collaboration of governments, organizations, and citizens to fight back against those who won’t—and don’t—hesitate to destroy our natural world.


The London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade

On February 13, 2014, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and members of the royal family welcomed heads of state, ministers, other dignitaries, and celebrities to Lancaster House for the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade—a meeting that brought high-level representatives from 46 countries and 11 international organizations together to address wildlife crime.

In welcoming the guests, Secretary Hague opined that the meeting would be a turning point in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade and declared that such trading is “a global criminal industry, ranked alongside drugs, arms and people trafficking. It drives corruption and insecurity, and undermines efforts to cut poverty and promote sustainable development, particularly in African countries.” Prince Charles thanked the participants for their commitment to urgently act to stop the illegal wildlife trade, which he stated “has become a grave threat not only to the wildlife and the people who protect them, but also to the security of so many nations.” Prince William remarked that everyone must use their “collective influence to put a stop to the illegal killing and trafficking of some our world’s most iconic and endangered species.”

The conference resulted in the London Declaration on the Illegal Wildlife Trade which, like the United States’ National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, identified several key categories of actions. These include eradicating the market for illegal wildlife products, ensuring effective legal frameworks and deterrents, strengthening law enforcement, and achieving sustainable livelihoods and economic development to combat the illegal wildlife trade. Forty-six countries, including the United States, endorsed the declaration—another step in the right direction but one that must be followed by a long-term commitment of governments and stakeholders to remedy this serious threat to wildlife.

US Efforts to Clamp Down on Ivory Trade

The United States has promised to undertake efforts to stop the slaughter of African elephants by closing some of the gaping loopholes that have contributed to this country being the second largest market for ivory products.

Specifically, the federal government has proposed to (1) prohibit commercial import of all African elephant ivory; (2) prohibit commercial export of elephant ivory with the exception of bona fide antiques; (3) significantly restrict domestic resale of elephant ivory; (4) clarify the definition of “antique” ivory; (5) restore full Endangered Species Act protections for the African elephant; and (6) limit the import of sport-hunted elephant trophies to two per hunter per year. Many of these proposed changes will be subject to public comment before they are finalized.

The National Rifle Association, antique ivory dealers, and some musicians have expressed opposition to these proposed restrictions, claiming that they hinder sales or international transport of antique ivory products or custom guns, fine furniture, or musical instruments containing ivory. Ultimately, the need to protect elephants must trump these concerns. And in truth, while these proposals may help to curb US ivory trade, a complete ban would be the most effective means to truly prevent US demand from continuing to fuel the slaughter of African elephants. 

In a related effort, legislation is pending in Hawaii and New York to restrict ivory possession, imports, exports, and sales. New York City is considered a key hub for the sale of ivory products both from illegal and legal sources—though much of what is passed off as legal is not. In addition, in April 2014, the federal government prohibited the import of elephant trophies from Tanzania and Zimbabwe due to those countries’ questionable management strategies and lack of effective law enforcement.