The Obama administration has unveiled a new strategy to combat wildlife trafficking that threatens endangered species and lines the pockets of some of the world’s most notorious criminals and terrorist groups.
The White House released a "National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking" on Tuesday that aims to strengthen enforcement and cooperation with partner countries and reduce demand for illegally traded wildlife. The strategy includes a ban on the U.S. commercial trade of elephant ivory, which is illegal to traffic and is very valuable on the African and Asian black markets.
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Wildlife has become the fourth-largest illicitly traded good in the world, generating $19 billion annually. A spike in poaching and trafficking in recent years has pushed animals like the black rhino toward extinction and reportedly financed operations for the al Qaeda-linked group al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in central Africa.
Johan Bergenas, deputy director of the Stimson Center’s Managing Across Boundaries initiative and an expert on wildlife trafficking, said in an email that while the new White House strategy is an "important" step, more needs to be done on a local level in countries.
"There is no or little need for more studies and needs assessments out of Washington," he said. "We have to get out in the field and work with partners to test out what works."
The Stimson Center, a Washington-based international security think tank, has launched a pilot project at the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary in Kenya. Park rangers at the sanctuary have lost several endangered elephants and rhinos in recent months to poachers equipped with night-vision goggles, heavy weaponry, and multiple vehicles.
Stimson’s project aims to avoid a "technology dump" by training the park rangers, Bergenas said. Rangers are first provided with items such as smartphones and GPS systems, followed by radars, communications equipment, and eventually drones.
Bergenas said the idea is for the project to serve as a model for eradicating wildlife trafficking from the region. Those efforts require cooperation from the United States and other militaries, governments, and aid organizations, he said.
Wildlife trafficking has joined the arms and drug trades as potent threats to the United States and international security.
Al-Shabaab’s participation in the illicit ivory trade finances as much as 40 percent of its monthly expenses, according to an investigation by the Elephant Action League, an anti-trafficking group. Militants for the Somali terrorist group earn a higher monthly salary than government soldiers.
Al-Shabaab was behind the September 2013 attacks on a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, that killed at least 67 people.
Wildlife trafficking networks extend from Kenya to Laos in Southeast Asia, the home of Vixay Keosavang—known as the "Pablo Escobar of wildlife trafficking."
The New York Times reported last year that Vixay (pronounced wee-sai) has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars by "laundering" animals with the tacit approval of the corrupt Laotian government.
Companies linked to Vixay have employed Thai prostitutes as "fake hunters" to smuggle rhino horns from South Africa. Vixay then exports the animal parts and other exotic wildlife to Asian markets with Laotian government paperwork that says they were legally bred in captivity.
The State Department announced a reward of up to $1 million last November for information that could help dismantle Vixay’s trafficking network. President Barack Obama also signed a law last year authored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.) that expanded the State Department’s reward program for global human rights abusers and transnational criminals.
Royce said in a statement Tuesday that the committee "looks forward to reviewing the National Strategy [for Combating Wildlife Trafficking] closely."
"While this growing problem is a grave threat to wildlife, with some animals facing extinction, it is also a threat to U.S. national security interests," he said. "As long as illegal wildlife trafficking continues, terrorists and rebel groups will have yet another way to fund their deadly objectives."