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Targeting Ivory Poachers Militarily Could Salvage Obama's "African Legacy"

01/06/2017 03:29 pm ET

Since President Obama is scrambling to slide through last-minute regulations, he might want to consider one that may save his crumbling African policy legacy and some endangered wildlife.

In following through on promises he made to tackle wildlife poaching, Obama should instruct the State Department to designate ivory poachers for what they are: Terrorist financiers and facilitators of ISIS- and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in sub-Saharan Africa.

This would add poachers to the drone war on terrorism.

Acting now would also take some of the wind out of the sails of China, which announced Dec. 30 it will shut down its domestic ivory markets and "strengthen the protection of elephants" by the end of 2017.

Attempts to stop the ivory trade have been failing since 1989 because they focus on ivory supplies after they have been ripped from dead animals, often on protected lands.

In June 2016, the President of Kenya thought it was a good idea to burn 105 tons of ivory and rhino horns seized from poachers only to have officials seize another two tons of smuggled ivory last month en route to Cambodia - ivory that had been previously labeled as police evidence against poachers.

Also failing is the premise that rather than chasing poachers, it is the traffickers and dealers that need to be targeted.

Without the poachers supplying the "product," there would be no traffickers to sell it - something that should have been learned from the failed "war on drugs."

A change in strategy is needed: Saving wildlife from armed poachers willing to kill 100 park rangers each year has gone beyond a conservation effort and should be recognized as the shooting war it is.

If even one wealthy American trophy-hunter was killed by poachers, the US would have drones in the air within hours.

So why wait?

The connection between poaching and terroist financing is well established by both foreign and American intelligence agencies.

A Dec. 9 report by INTERPOL and the United Nations notes "criminal groups take advantage of poverty-stricken communities, creating incentives for people to resort to illegal poaching."

At the June 30 "Combating Wildlife Trafficking Symposium," US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the world is "faced with a clear moral imperative."

"This is not a victimless crime. Lives are at risk, both human and wildlife. It jeopardizes peace and security for the communities in and around hotspots," Clapper said.

Al Shabab, a group the US is already fighting in Somalia and Kenya, raises up to $600,000 a month from ivory supplied by poachers, according to the Elephant Action League.

What is needed is making the life expectancy of these poachers so short - a matter of days - that no one will risk taking the job. And that requires a few well placed military drone strikes on poaching camps from any number of our established drone bases in Djibouti, Niger, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Burkina Faso or the Seychelles.

US African Command - AFRICOM - collaborates with regional governments to combat terrorism and Obama has already escalated US military operations from Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti in at least 33 African nations, as well as against piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

With AFRICOM's primary role of "protecting US interests in Africa," the US already has allies that include both the US-funded and -implemented Trans-Sahara Counter-terrorism Partnership and the Partnership for Regional East Africa Counter-terrorism battling "non-traditional" security threats in Africa.

President Obama has consistently sent to Congress consolidated reports on operations directed at "stopping the movement, arming and financing of international terrorist groups," so it's not a stretch to include wildlife poachers known to undermine regional economies and fund the very groups the US is fighting.

We certainly know where to find the poachers: Obama's Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking includes the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. And in February 2015, Obama pledged to use US intelligence agencies to track those who benefit from wildlife trafficking.

The Transnational Organized Crime Rewards Program also offers rewards for wildlife traffickers, with the first $1 million bounty offered in November 2013 for information leading to the Xaysavang Network in Africa and Asia.

Though ratcheting up these efforts to include a few missions to specifically target poachers may seem drastic, it would be practically routine and the US wouldn't be alone.

In October 2016, Tanzania's president ordered security forces to hunt down those financing organized elephant poaching networks and "arrest all those involved in this illicit trade, no one should be spared regardless of his position, age, religion ... or popularity."

This followed Tanzania's October 2013 creation of "Operation Terminate," which called for illegal ivory traders to be executed "on the spot." When that program was suspended a month later, the result was a sharp uptick in elephant deaths in Tanzania - the country named as ground zero for African poaching in 2015 by the journal Science.

Ironically, last month a US federal court revived a lawsuit brought by big-game hunters who challenged the US Fish and Wildlife Service's ban on importation of elephant hunting trophies from Tanzania.

The African regions vulnerable to poaching are the same regions struggling to prop-up their economies through wildlife-based tourism even as their wildlife are dwindling. And dwindling they are, even in Africa's national parks and protected areas. Elephant populations have dropped 30% from 2007 to 2014, according to August 2016's Great Elephant Census.

Obama has known that time is running out since announcing his sub-Saharan Africa strategy in June 2012.

During his 2013 trip to Tanzania, Obama announced his Trade Africa and Power Africa initiatives - no longer touted as major legacy items for his presidency - and an additional $10 million to combat wildlife trafficking.

This was followed by a wildlife trafficking forum during the 2014 US-Africa Leaders Summit.

During his July 2015 African trip, Obama signed several counter-terrorism deals and told the African Union "America also stands with you in the fight against wildlife trafficking."

That trip included a "Conversation with Members of Civil Society" in Nairobi, Kenya, where Wildlife Trust's Paula Kahumbu requested the US "lead in pursuing international wildlife traffickers with the same vigor and rigor that you apply to money laundering and drug crimes."

During a Senate hearing on wildlife poaching just prior to Obama's July 2015 trip, World Wildlife Fund's Ginette Hemley suggested: "Where suitable, the US government should also explore possible collaboration and/or assistance by the Department of Defense/AFRICOM with those local forces tasked with wildlife and/or park protection as a mission in countries facing militarized poaching threats."

Sub-Saharan Africa is not just the "Cradle of Humankind," it is the last refuge for natural ecosystems and wildlife found nowhere else in the world. That wildlife is also a huge source of tourism and research income for the region and allowing that source of sustainable income to go extinct will only make the region more economically and politically unstable.

And with the US and international firms jockeying for a piece of rebuilding Africa's infrastructure, African ecosystems and the wildlife it supports will become increasingly pressured.

As easy as Obama recently banned Arctic drilling, established new National Monuments and sanctioned Russia, he can officially designate sub-Saharan Africa's ivory poachers as terrorist supporters under State Department guidelines.

This would allow him - and the next administration - to unleash the same focused drone attacks on known poaching camps as is already being done against terrorist groups in West and East Africa.

Campaigning for the White House, president-elect Donald Trump declared that halting the spread of terrorist violence would be a foreign policy priority.

So since Trump is set to inherit Obama's clandestine war in sub-Saharan Africa, why wouldn't he go after these terrorist-funding poachers "by what ever means necessary," enduring himself to both wildlife-dependent African communities and to the increasing number of global conservation groups calling for a military response to poaching?

With that in mind, Obama should act now before Trump takes credit for this overdue strategy.

In fact, making good on his promise now to actually "combat" wildlife poaching is an opportunity for Obama to show the world that in Africa, all life matters.

And that alone would go along way towards justifying his Nobel Prize.

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