If the crowd for the White House Forum to Counter Wildlife Trafficking was a little bit more crowded than you might expect at an event about, well, wildlife trafficking, blame Hillary Clinton. Or better yet, blame Syria—the former Secretary of State had long been scheduled to speak at the wildlife event, but she also decided to take the opportunity the Syria crisis. (For the record, she said the world would have to deal with the use of chemical weapons as “swiftly and comprehensively as possible.”) I’m guessing most of the press were a lot more interested in that—and on the possibility of a 2016 run—than on Clinton’s thoughts about elephant poaching.
And that’s too bad. While Syria is clearly foremost on people’s minds at the White House—Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes might have set a landspeed record for opening remarks while introducing the forum—wildlife trafficking is a serious threat to global biodiversity, and one that is getting worse by the day. Trafficking in species like elephants and rhinos has doubled since 2007, and the illegal trade is now the fourth-largest international crime. The number of elephants in killed in Kenya has risen eight-fold since 2007, and the number of rhinos slaughtered in South Africa has increased fifty-fold over the same time period. The global demand for wildlife parts has increased so much that white rhinos horns can be worth as much as two times their weight in gold—that’s well over $2,000 an ounce—and the entire trade could be worth $10 billion a year. “Wildlife trafficking has serious implications for the security and prosperity of people around the world,” Clinton said in her speech. Stopping the metastasizing wildlife trade matters for animals—rare species like the Bengal tiger and the northern white rhino could be hunted to extinction—and it matters for people too.
This White House has already put additional effort into fighting wildlife trafficking. Back in July, during his visit to Africa, President Obama signed an executive order that established a Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, as well as an advisory council on the issue. The Department of State will provide an additional $10 million in regional and bilateral training and technical assistance to African nations to combat wildlife trafficking, with Kenya and South Africa—two wildlife-rich nations that are at the center of the trade—getting the bulk of the funding. At the forum, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell also announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would destroy the roughly six tons of confiscated ivory in its possession, to signal that the trade in the substance is unacceptable and to encourage other countries to destroy their stockpiles.
But those moves alone aren’t enough to slow the pace of wildlife trafficking, which has grown as a global criminal enterprise because the financial benefits so outweigh the risks. There might be more profit in the illegal drug trade—which in 2005 was worth an estimated $320 billion—but there’s also a lot more danger. Get caught trafficking drugs, and you’re almost certainly going to jail—possibly for a very long time. Get convicted of trading in illegal wildlife parts, however, and your sentence is likely to be much lighter. “Our penalties are not significant enough for wildlife crimes,” said David Hayes, the former deputy secretary of the Interior Department. “We’re not creating the kind of disincentive for wildlife trafficking that this problem deserves.”
And that’s assuming you’re caught at all—at the forum, Jewell noted that sequestration had reduced the number of Fish and Wildlife inspectors checking out incoming flights. Fish and Wildlife has 216 special agents, about the same number the agency had in 1978, even as the wildlife trade has boomed. “That hampers our efforts to enforce anti-smuggling,” she said, “and smugglers know that.”
We know that the wildlife trade is putting additional pressure on species that already face threats from habitat loss and climate change. In Tanzania, where Obama made his announcement on wildlife trafficking in July, the number of elephants dropped from between 165,000 and 110,000 to as few as 23,000 today. Last year poachers killed 668 of South Africa’s estimated 21,000 rhinos, whose horns are coveted for their supposed medicinal properties. Through July, poachers had already killed 553 rhinos. In her speech, Clinton noted that 96 elephants are killed each day.
But wildlife trafficking, like all international crime, is also unhealthy for the countries that are at the heart of the trade. Sometimes literally—more than 1,000 rangers, often badly outgunned, have been killed by poachers over the last 10 years. Less obvious is the destabilizing effect of high-end trafficking on poor African nations, which feeds the growth of corruption even as poaching robs countries of the resources needed to support a vibrant tourist economy. “There’s a lawlessness inherent to the trade,” said Hayes. “We have to work together on this as an international community. We are losing and losing badly.”
The problem is that the rising demand for wildlife part, which in turn drives poaching, chiefly comes from Asia, which limits what the U.S. and other developed nations alone can do. But the ivory wars of the 1980s were even bloodier than what we see today, and they were brought to an end thanks to increased enforcement from the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species, or CITES. “Wildlife can really recover if we give it a chance,” said Cristian Samper, the CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
It wold be much easier to stamp out the illegal wildlife trade than it would be to, say, end the drug wars, if only because the market for wildlife parts is still relatively small, if growing. It’s a question of funding and of priority, for the U.S. and for the Asian nations on the receiving end of the trade. “This is an issue where the trend lines are bad, but where action can make a difference,” said Rhodes. “The scope of the problem can be met with solutions.” Which is more than can be said about the Administration’s other big foreign policy challenge.