It’s open season on elephants in Africa. In 2012 poachers killed 35,000 elephants—that’s nearly 96 per day, part of an illegal killing spree that has seen the number of African elephants plummet by 76% since 1980. The targets are the elephants’ tusks, made of ivory that can be shipped abroad and sold for more than $1,000 per pound in rapidly growing Asian markets. Wildlife trafficking is valued at $7-$10 billion a year, making it the fifth most lucrative illegal activity after the drug trade, human trafficking, oil theft and counterfeiting. And because the penalties for poaching tend to be far more weaker than the punishment for trading drugs or people, it’s become an attractive business for criminal syndicates and terrorist groups alike. “Poaching has become an enormous problem and one of the most profitable criminal activities there is,” says Peter Seligmann, the CEO of Conservation International. “It’s destabilizing to nations, it’s a threat to security forces and it’s a serious loss for local economies that depend on wildlife.” The illegal wildlife trade is blood money at its bloodiest.
Part of the problem is that the good guys have long been outgunned by the bad guys. Rangers in African nations are often poorly equipped compared to syndicate-backed hunters with night-vision goggles and high-powered rifles. But a new commitment that will be announced later this morning at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) summit in New York may begin to balance the fight. An alliance of conservation groups—including CI, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare—will come together with a number of African nations to improve anti-poaching efforts on the ground, disrupt international trafficking networks—and perhaps most importantly, work to cool the feverish demand for ivory products in the rising consumer nations of Asia. “We have a proposed strategy to stop the killing, stop the trafficking and stop the demand,” says Cristian Samper, the president of WCS. “We need to step up the game.”
This isn’t the first time wide scale poaching threatened ivory-carrying species like the African elephant and the even-rarer rhino—the 1980s were marked by the bloody “Ivory Wars” that only came to an end in 1989 when the members of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted to ban the sale of ivory altogether. Ivory jewelry became taboo in much of the world, which reduced the demand and the killing. Elephant and rhino numbers were able to recover.
But the tremendous economic growth in Asian nations like China has created a new and massive class of consumers who have the money to buy ivory. And with the demand growing, criminal syndicates have moved into ensure the supply. That means more dead elephants and rhinos—South Africa alone has been on a pace to lose almost 1,000 rhinos this year, which would be a huge increase from the less than 20 rhinos that were poached annually on average between 2000 and 2008. “If you look at the number of new consumers in China who have enough disposable income to buy ivory jewelry and you look at the number of elephants left, you can see that if everyone in that demographic bought a kilo of ivory, there’s be no elephants left,” says Azzedine Downes, the president of IFAW.
It’s bad enough that poachers are hunting elephants, rhinos and other threatened species to death. But wildlife trafficking has also become an international security issue. There’s evidence that militant groups like al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-backed Somali terrorist group responsible for the devastating attack on a Nairobi shopping mall last week, are funded partially by the illegal wildlife trade. Ivory is an ideal substance for criminals to trade—it’s portable and valuable, its origin can easily be erased and the criminal penalties for poaching rarely amount to more than a small fine. As the militants have moved in, poaching has gotten more sophisticated and bloodier. African wildlife agencies that were used to policing local hunters are now involved in a “low-level form of counterinsurgency,” as Ian J. Saunders put it in a report this year for the International Conservation Caucus Foundation. There’s a cost in lives—at least 1,000 park rangers have been killed in the line of duty over the past 10 years. “People look at elephants as capital on the hoof,” says Patrick Bergin, the CEO of AWF. “The poachers might have night-vision goggles, and the rangers don’t even have proper rain gear.”
The funds that are part of the commitment announced at CGI will be used to support governments in Africa—including Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, South Sudan, Malawi and Uganda—in anti-poaching efforts at 50 priority elephant sites, hiring and supporting another 3,100 park guards. On the trafficking side, money will go to strengthen intelligence networks and toughen the laughably light penalties for poaching and trading. There’s also an agreement to try to raise an additional $70 million over the next three years to further the fight. The partners behind the agreement will also work together to reduce the demand for ivory in consuming countries, in part by trying to highlight the connection between ivory products and wildlife slaughter. “A lot fewer people would buy an ivory trinket if they knew it required slaughtering a magnificent animal,” says Carter Roberts, the president and CEO of WWF.
That might sound like a tall order, but there’s already progress being made. Earlier this year the Thai Prime Minister Thai Yingluck Shinawatra announced that her country—a major ivory consumer—would begin the legislative process of ending the ivory trade. In China, the retired basketball star Yao Ming has worked to raise awareness in his home country about the bloody consequences of wildlife trafficking, just as he’s done with shark-fin soup, which leads to the slaughter of millions of sharks each year. Change is possible—in an interview with TIME, Chelsea Clinton, who’s now the vice chair of the Clinton Foundation and who helped put together the commitment, noted that the popularity of pianos in middle-class homes in the 19th century led at the time to a huge uptick in the killing of elephants, whose tusks were used to make ivory keys. When consumers began to become aware of the slaughter, they pushed piano companies to find new materials to make their keys. “You can change the demand dynamics,” she says.
This is a key moment in the fight against wildlife trafficking. On one hand, poaching might be as bad as it has ever been, adding a mortal threat to species that already face habitat loss, disease and climate change. On the other hand, the growing awareness that wildlife trafficking is becoming an international security issue—one connected to terrorism—mean that more resources will be devoted to fighting it. When she was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton made wildlife trafficking a priority in part because, as she noted in a 2012 meeting, it has “serious implications for the security and prosperity of people around the world.” On a visit to Africa earlier this year, President Obama announced an executive order to combat trafficking, and established a task force on the subject. “This is a security issue because of how closely ivory trafficking is linked to destabilizing forces in central and west Africa,” says Chelsea Clinton. “It’s also a conservation and development issue. I know I don’t want my children to grow up in a world without elephants.”
If poaching continues unabated, that’s a very real possibility. Hopefully, today’s commitment at CGI is a sign that the world is up to the challenge of stopping the illegal slaughter, trafficking and consumption of some of the most majestic animals to walk the Earth.