Washington — The Obama administration is intensifying U.S. action to curtail illegal trafficking in wildlife products, activity described in a White House fact sheet as a “serious and urgent conservation and global security threat.”
A keynote action in the new National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking is a ban on commercial trade in elephant ivory, prohibiting commercial imports, exports and domestic sale of ivory. Some exceptions will be permitted for antique items, but owners will be required to present documents authenticating the legitimacy of the item and the date of its acquisition.
The strategy acknowledges that the United States is one of the world’s major markets for trade in illegal wildlife products, especially ivory. “We can’t ask other nations to crack down unless we’re ready to do so at home,” according to one senior administration official who spoke to reporters on a background conference call just after the new strategy was released February 11.
Since 1990, the United States has banned the import of African elephant ivory, while still permitting interstate transactions of this commodity. But times have changed. What one official called “an explosion in trade” has led to widescale slaughter of elephants and rhinoceroses that now threatens the survival of the species.
“The U.S. market is contributing to the crisis now threatening the African elephant,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe in a press release. “The largely unregulated domestic trade in elephant ivory has served as a loophole that gives cover for illegal trade.”
Imposition of the domestic ivory trade ban will provide “urgently needed protections for elephants and rhinos that will help counteract the unparalleled threats facing two of the world’s most treasured species,” Ashe said.
Driven by organized criminal networks connected to drug trafficking and terrorism, the escalation in trafficking caused the slaughter of as many as 35,000 elephants last year, Ashe said.
Wildlife poaching now threatens to reverse gains in conservation practices that have occurred over decades, according to the strategy documents, affecting a wide range of terrestrial, freshwater and marine species: elephants, rhinos, tigers, sharks, tuna, sea turtles, land tortoises, great apes, exotic birds, pangolins, sturgeon, coral, iguanas, chameleons, tarantulas and others.
A presidentially appointed panel developed the new strategy, assigned to the task after President Obama focused on wildlife trafficking while on a 2013 trip to Africa. His objective is to better organize and coordinate U.S. government activities related to endangered species, border control and law enforcement.
The strategy cites three specific priorities:
• Strengthening domestic and global enforcement. Wildlife trafficking will be elevated to become a “core mission” for the enforcement agencies across government.
• Reducing demand for illegally traded wildlife at home and abroad. The increased restrictions on the domestic ivory trade are expected to help achieve this goal.
• Strengthening partnerships with foreign governments, local communities, nongovernmental organizations, private industries and others that are also committed to ending this illicit activity.
The New York–based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), one prominent nongovernmental organization, issued an immediate and positive response to the new White House strategy to combat this illegal activity.
“I am encouraged to see a unified, cross-cutting plan, including an emphasis on site-based conservation action, which will better equip the United States to take on all facets of this crisis — stopping the killing, stopping the trafficking, and stopping the demand,” WCS President Cristián Samper said on the strategy's release.
Samper also serves as a member of the U.S. Advisory Council to the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking.
The wildlife trafficking strategy also sets specific goals on how the United States can help improve global enforcement in partnership with source and transit nations of wildlife products. The strategy reaffirms ongoing U.S. programs to help other nations build law enforcement skills to stop trafficking. It also identifies specific objectives to help other governments enact strong laws, stop poachers, protect borders, investigate trafficking gangs and combat the corruption of public officials. Bribes paid to wildlife conservation officers, border authorities and other public officials are enabling poaching activities in some places.
The strategy also aspires to enlist local community support for wildlife conservation, describing tribes and villages as “a frontline defense against poaching.” Further, the strategy aims to improve information exchange about trafficking and enforcement activities among various agencies and governments and apply the most sophisticated technological tools that can help identify trafficking “hot spots,” or monitor illicit online commerce in wildlife products.
On the broader view, officials say that high-profile U.S. attention and aggressive policies may also stir greater awareness among other governments about the dire threat facing the survival of many species if trafficking is not better controlled.