11/08/2012 12:26 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

Wildlife and Foreign Policy: What's the Connection?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted a discussion this morning with foreign diplomats, government officials, civil society leaders, and business representatives on illegal wildlife trafficking and animal conservation. Protection of endangered species such as elephants, rhinos, and tigers do not immediately conjure up images of diplomacy in action. So it's fair to ask why the Secretary of State is interested in wildlife and convening this high-level meeting. The answer is multifaceted and has broad foreign policy implications.

The U.S. Department of State has a long and proud history in supporting wildlife conservation. In 1916, then-Secretary of State Robert Lansing signed with his British counterpart (representing Canada) a treaty to protect birds that migrate between the United States and Canada. Since then, many such treaties have been adopted with the understanding that the United States and other nations have a collective responsibility to protect our planet's wildlife. American bald eagles, Siberian tigers, Asian black bears, African elephants, and other animals are part of the fabric and history of cultures and countries throughout the world. These magnificent creatures are an essential and rich part of our shared patrimony that transcends national borders.

Secretary Clinton's passion and dedication has reinforced the fact that wildlife conservation and trafficking are global issues that merit global action. For me, protecting wildlife is a very personal issue. I spent a year in Kenya and Tanzania as a graduate student, where I experienced the spectacular beauty of wild animals in magnificent national parks such as Amboseli, Maasai Mara, Serengeti, and Ngorongoro. That's why I'm deeply disturbed by the horrendous pace, scale, and violence associated with wildlife crime.

Vastly increased firepower and ruthless tactics on the part of poachers jeopardize security, stability, and rule of law in countries across the globe. In Cameroon, for example, recent cross-border incursions by foreign poachers--and the resulting massive slaughters--pose a serious threat to peace and security in the region. Moreover, because wildlife trafficking is highly profitable--worth billions of dollars each year--there is a growing link to transnational organized crime. These trafficking syndicates bribe officials to circumvent national laws, rouse mayhem in local communities, and threaten (and sometimes kill) park rangers and other citizens. In Africa, upwards of a hundred park rangers are killed in the line of duty every year by poachers. In some cases, proceeds from the sale of elephant tusks, rhino horns, and tiger skins are used to pay for drugs, weapons, and bribes, creating a vicious cycle of havoc that can lead fragile states into further instability. The implications stemming from the illicit wildlife trade--in addition to the trade itself--are therefore of profound concern to the United States and millions of Americans.

Beyond moral and environmental implications, large scale poaching threatens the livelihoods and economic growth opportunities of local communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere. During a recent visit to Namibia, I met with leaders of the King Nehale Conservancy--bordering on the magnificent Etosha National Park--to learn about how their conservancy supports eco-tourism, protects indigenous wildlife, and benefits local community members. There are more than 75 conservancies in Namibia, which collectively earn over $7 million annually from eco-tourism revenue. Namibia's wildlife gives community members direct financial benefits that can then be used for schools, medical facilities, water treatment, and other development essentials. Communities across the globe have attracted travelers wanting to connect with nature. Wildlife poaching and trafficking severely damage, or in some cases effectively end, opportunities for eco-tourism.

We collectively share a moral and political responsibility to be good stewards of our planet and support the development and security of countries suffering from wildlife trafficking. That's why wildlife conservation and anti-trafficking are foreign policy priorities for the Department of State. Our governments and citizens cannot afford to stand idle while poachers and wildlife traffickers hunt elephants, rhinos, tigers, bears, or any threatened species to extinction.

We need to show collective outrage against wildlife crimes to galvanize bold, comprehensive, worldwide action. None of us is doing enough. Secretary Clinton's meeting today is a call to action to work harder, and to work together. We can put an end to wildlife crime by supporting the efforts of governments whose animals and rangers fall victim to poachers; strengthening and enforcing laws against poaching and wildlife trafficking; and educating our citizens about the horrors of poaching and encouraging them to stop buying ivory, rhino horns, animal skins, exotic birds, and other endangered animals and their products. Anything less than such a bold and comprehensive effort will result in further decimation of nature's magnificent legacy to our planet. That would be the world's lost and our generation's shame.