Obama Renews Commitment to Quell Wildlife Trafficking, but is it enough?

The Obama administration renewed its commitment to fighting wildlife trafficking when it announced on the 11th of February that it would pledge the work of domestic intelligence agencies to track criminals engaged in this lucrative and illegal industry. These actions will be realized through the now one-year-old Presidential Task Force on Combating Wildlife Trafficking, responsible for the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. Since its inception in February 2014, the Task Force has enacted a ban on the import, export or resale of elephant ivory within the United States. This announcement comes off the back of the recent release of figures citing 2014 as a record high for the poaching of rhinos in South Africa, with 1,215 rhinos poached for their valuable ivory horns, marking a 21 per cent increase from the previous year.

Image courtesy of Tom Oates © 2008, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Tom Oates © 2008, some rights reserved.

Wildlife trafficking represents one of the biggest threats to many threatened species across the globe. Wildlife is traded as food, used as part of herbal remedies in traditional medicine, and collected by individuals, to name a few uses. The persistent demand combined with a lack of consumer education on the long-term impacts of extinction has created an environment conducive to massive over-exploitation, endangerment, or even extinction of many species. According to recent U.S. government estimates, the trade brings in between $7 and $10 billion dollars annually. The threat is three-fold: firstly, poaching undermines social stability through the presence of armed insurgent groups and criminals; secondly, wildlife trafficking reduces regional biodiversity, resulting in changed and therefore threatened ecosystems; thirdly, trafficking can create extensive economic losses through the lost eco-tourism business.

Violence is central to the wildlife trade: illegal wildlife poaching has been linked to armed insurgent groups, who use the gains of wildlife trafficking to fund violent regimes or continue to engage in civil war. The LRA, the Lord’s Resistance Army, operating in Uganda and South Sudan, have been thought to trade illegal ivory in exchange for arms and other military equipment. Despite increasing commitment from the international community in their attempts to quell illegal wildlife trade, criminals have become increasingly sophisticated in surpassing state controls and international policies enacted for protection for both humans and wildlife species. The violence associated with these criminal groups can affect both human security and the security of the state.

From another perspective, biodiversity is a vital indicator of the health of a biological region, and the maintained health of a region is inherently linked to the principle of sovereignty as outlined in the UN Charter. This treaty underlines the right of self-determination, which provides the exclusive control of natural resources within specific state boundaries. This illicit trade therefore threatens to undermine the state’s sovereign responsibility to maintain the safety and continued existence of its natural resources. Moreover, any imbalances in the ecosystem can create a ripple of unwanted effects in a delicately balanced environment.

The growth of wildlife trafficking threatens to bring about significant economic impacts on wildlife-reliant states in the eventual loss of tourism revenue. In Tanzania, for example, the draw of the natural wildlife accounts for about 17% of the country’s GDP. Though Tanzania prioritizes this important industry, with over forty-two thousand square kilometers set aside as national parks, the wildlife management system is rife with corruption. In January of 2014, the Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism was found to have taken bribes in exchange for unlawful assignment of hunting blocks and allowing animals to be shipped abroad. Speaking alongside President Obama at the White House in December that year, the Duke of Cambridge called the illegal wildlife trade “one of the most insidious forms of corruption and criminality in the world today”. Despite these high-profile endorsements, this issue has continued to persist, increasing year to year as criminals learn evasive tactics.

In the statement last week pledging increased support to defeating wildlife trafficking, President Obama called the scale of wildlife trafficking “an international crisis”, putting the trade of endangered species on par with other recent international disasters. Combating this illicit trade has been a cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s environmental policy, with the task force seeking to curb poaching in Africa and demand in Asia. In particular, a recent damaging myth that rhino horn can cure cancer has massively pushed up the price of rhino horn and increased the poaching of this increasingly rare animal in South Africa. According to Dr. Richard Thomas, the Global Communication Coordinator for TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, the organization has been working closely to manage the fall out of this myth: “Under a CITES-led process a rhino working group was established, and Vietnam has been encouraged through that to address rhino crime – included amongst those is a commitment to change consumer behaviour.” However, Thomas insists, Vietnam must implement stricter law enforcement measures and better smuggling detection systems – there have been relatively few high-level arrests despite the size of the trade.

Though the Obama Administration’s recent promise is encouraging, there is still a long way to go in quelling a hugely popular illicit trade. Despite the rhetoric of the renewed commitment, there has actually only been a small increase for funding and staffing in the law enforcement bureau of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the body primarily responsible for issues of wildlife trade. In fact, the main solution to this ever-growing problem is rooted not in increased law enforcement but rather cultural changes to encourage a reduction in demand. Thomas declares that “there has been an increase in political will, but that hasn’t yet translated into adequate measures being taken on the ground by the international community to curtail the crisis – as evidenced by the increasing poaching of rhinos in South Africa.” An informed and incensed public who refuse to be consumers to this devastating industry is essential in the fight against this illicit trade. Obama’s personal endorsement and labeling of this issue has given it importance on the international stage, bringing prominence to a vital issue that threatens communities on a multitude of levels, but it has still not offered a solution to an ever-growing environmental and social disaster.

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