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The Illegal Wildlife Trade: A Survey of Greed, Tragedy, and Ignorance

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Since the beginning of 2012, over 250 elephants have been killed in Cameroon. Adults are being slaughtered for ivory to be used for jewelry, ornaments, and traditional medicine; young juveniles and infants are being killed indiscriminately or left orphaned to die without the protection of their mothers. Having lived in Kenya and Tanzania earlier in my life, I experienced firsthand the wonder of African elephants in their native habitats. That's why I feel a personal sense of outrage at the senseless and immoral killing of wildlife. We should all feel outrage -- even those who have not had the privilege to see elephants close up -- because the conservation of our planet's wildlife is an moral obligation we all share. The U.S. government has consistently been among the leaders in the efforts to protect elephants and other wildlife, but to be effective it's vital that all governments and citizens take ownership and pride in the biodiversity of their communities.

Despite the elephant massacre in Cameroon, we've made some progress. A decision of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1989 made ivory trade effectively illegal. Before the CITES ban, poaching for ivory led to a dramatic decline in the African elephant population (from an estimated 1.2 million African elephants in the late 1970s to less than 500,000 in 1989). The ban was -- at least until recently--relatively successful, helping to sustain, and aid the recovery of, elephant populations in several countries. Unfortunately, the trend seems to be reversing because of growing demand for ivory from Asia, in particular in China, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Cameroonian elephants have fallen victim to armed poachers invading from Chad and Sudan. A third to a half of the savanna elephant population in the Bouba Ndjida National Park, in northern Cameroon, have been killed. Park rangers and local authorities are no match for highly organized poachers, who are armed with automatic weaponry and employ ruthless tactics. The Cameroonian government authorized military intervention to protect elephant populations in March, with some success. Although the poachers have been driven out of the park and some weapons and ivory tusks confiscated, the threat continues because demand for ivory is high and there is money to be made. A pound of raw ivory sells for about $400 on the black market and, in China, ivory bracelets and earrings can fetch upwards of $300.

INTERPOL estimates illegal wildlife trade to be worth between $10-20 billion annually. Conservation efforts are thwarted, local communities are robbed of economic resources, and biodiversity is reduced when species are taken from the wild. The loss in ecosystem resilience affects fresh water supply and food production. Rule of law and national security issues are also a concern. Organized crime is attracted to wildlife trafficking for its profitability, small risk of prosecution, as well as light fines and jail sentences. Criminals who deliberately cross international borders, violate national laws with relative impunity, and attempt to corrupt government officials are a serious threat to the stability, economy, and natural resources of a country. In Cameroon, for example, proceeds from poached ivory will likely finance the purchase of weapons and ammunition, further exacerbating conflict in the region.

To catch poachers, we need to help other countries reinforce customs and border controls, enact tougher wildlife crime laws, educate prosecutors and the judges about the seriousness of such crimes, and provide resources and training to law enforcement authorities. And, it's vital that we curb demand for ivory as well as other wild animals and derived parts (e.g., rhino horns, tortoise shells, bear paws, and exotic birds). Consumers need to be made aware that wearing wildlife is not attractive nor will consuming wildlife products likely cure their ailments. They cannot claim ignorance when it comes to the cruel tactics poachers employ and the lives -- both human and animal -- that are lost in the name of fads and fashions.

The United States has been at the forefront of international efforts to dismantle and bring a halt to the illegal wildlife trade. In 2005, the Department of State launched the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking. And, in July 2011, the White House released the President's National Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime and Converging Threats to National Security; this highlighted environmental crimes as being among the top five most lucrative criminal activities. The Department of State has helped to form regional wildlife enforcement networks in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Central America. And, in April, the U.S. embassies in Gabon and the Central African Republic -- in partnership with the Government of Gabon -- brought together law enforcement, government officials, and conservations to share best practices to curb illicit wildlife trafficking.

Neither governments nor individual citizens can afford to stand idle while poachers and wildlife traffickers hunt elephants, or any threatened species. Collective outrage at these horrendous crimes is needed to spur action. The United States will continue to support citizens and governments to protect our planet's wildlife.

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