Wildlife trafficking: US initiative in Africa 'really about people'

The US wildlife initiative to stop poaching of elephants and other animals aims to address each level of an expanding illegal global market that is rivaling the global narcotics, arms, and human trafficking markets.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Barack Obama speaks at a business forum aimed at increasing investment in Africa, on Monday, July 1, 2013, in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. The president is traveling in Tanzania on the final leg of his three-country tour in Africa.

With the African elephant at risk of being slaughtered to the point of extinction, and with the trafficking of wildlife soaring to meet the exploding global demand for animal parts, the US and nongovernmental groups are teaming up with African and Asian countries to fight back.

A day after President Obama signed an executive order in Tanzania creating a Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, officials from key US agencies including the Interior, State, and Justice departments met at the White House Tuesday to begin mapping out the presidential initiative.

Officials and leaders of several international organizations focused on wildlife preservation echoed Mr. Obama’s sense of urgency in announcing his initiative, insisting there is no time to waste.

“The numbers we are seeing are truly staggering” in terms of the animals killed and animal parts being trafficked, says David Hayes, deputy secretary of the Interior, who participated in Tuesday’s White House meeting. “It’s truly possible we could lose the African elephant from the face of this Earth within a decade.”

Last year an estimated 30,000 elephants were killed for their tusks, many of them falling to poachers armed with high-powered rifles and chain saws and sent out by crime gangs trafficking in ivory, rhino horn, tiger paws, and other animal parts. The slaughter of elephants has left only about 400,000 African elephants in the wild, experts say.

Obama kicked off his initiative in Tanzania Monday with the announcement of a $10 million program to provide training and technical assistance to sub-Saharan African countries that are finding their anti-poaching efforts are no match for the well-funded and heavily armed traffickers.

The new task force is supposed to deliver a national strategy for tackling wildlife trafficking and aiding countries, particularly in Africa, in their anti-poaching efforts, by the end of the year.

Obama used the backdrop of Tanzania and his three-nation Africa tour to announce his initiative because he said the threatened loss of the continent’s iconic wildlife to poaching also threatens Africa’s “identity and prosperity.”

In other words, the new initiative, though it has “wildlife” in its name, is really about people, some private-sector advocates involved in the plan say.

“We all recognize we’re talking about the economic future of the countries of Africa and Asia,” says Jeff Trandahl, executive director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. “This is not all about animals, it’s really about people.”  

Others involved in the advisory panel that will advise US agencies on ways to address wildlife trafficking say the key to the initiative is that it aims to address each level of an expanding global market – one that, at an estimated $7 billion dollars a year in illegal trade, is rivaling the global narcotics, arms, and human trafficking markets.

“We are faced with a global market, and we have to deal with it in the places where the animals are, in the places of transshipment, and where the people are who are the buyers” of the animal parts, “whether they’re in Vietnam, China, or even the US,” says Carter Roberts, president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “We’re not going to win unless we operate in all three areas of what is a vast global trade.”

Obama’s initiative is not the first the US government has launched to try to stem wildlife trafficking. Last year then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton launched a Partnership on Wildlife Trafficking with the aim of better coordinating government and non-governmental efforts.

But White House officials say Obama decided to elevate the level of involvement and attention to the issue as international alarm grew in recent months over the intensifying slaughter of Africa’s wildlife.

Trafficking experts say the trade in wildlife parts has tracked the growth in recent years of a new middle class in Asia with the means to afford some of the luxuries such as ivory – and fabled but baseless elixirs such as rhino horn powder or tiger organs for treating conditions such as impotency – once reserved for a wealthy few.

The global trade in illegal ivory has doubled since 2007, according to UN estimates.

That burgeoning market leads wildlife protagonists like WWF’s Mr. Roberts to stress the need in any initiative “to address the demand side.”

And while the prospects of denting the booming market for coveted animal parts might seem dim to many, Interior’s Deputy Secretary Hayes points to recent successes in getting Asian countries to tackle the widespread slaughter of sharks – whose fins are sought for shark fin soup – as evidence that governments and publics can respond to common-sense efforts to stop detrimental practices.

For Hayes, “That shows the ability we have, with diplomatic work and cooperation [from the public], to address this issue.”

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