By Emma O’Malley
Illegal wildlife trafficking is one of the lowest profile illegal activities, but is in fact the fourth-largest transnational crime in the world, averaging between $7.8-10 billion in sales per year. However, unlike other major transnational crimes such as human, arms, and drug trafficking, efforts to combat wildlife trafficking have been neglected by the United States. Since funds from the lucrative illegal wildlife trade often end up in the hands of terrorist organizations, eliminating wildlife trafficking should be a primary US national security goal, rather than a secondary objective.
A number of terrorist organizations in Africa are involved in wildlife trafficking, enhancing the security threat they pose to local, US-supported, African military and police forces, as well as to US entities in Africa. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan terrorist group led by Joseph Kony, frequents the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Garamba National Park. LRA fighters use this base to harvest ivory from the diminishing number of elephants that live there. Somali Islamist extremist group al Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate, receives up to 40 percent of its funding from illegal ivory trade, amounting to about $200,000-$600,000 per month, depending upon how much ivory the group can harvest. Nigerian militant group Boko Haram has also reportedly been involved in the illegal wildlife trade. In many cases, members of these groups will trade animal products for weapons to bolster their forces. They face little opposition from authorities, many of whom engage in corruption and receive bribes. In some areas, park rangers are also conspirators to the illegal trade by offering special access routes and animal tracking to poachers.
US Special Forces are currently deployed in Africa to help combat these terrorist groups. They provide training to local African troops and aid them in fighting the LRA and Boko Haram, among others. The United States also established a $10 million aid program to Africa to combat wildlife trafficking in 2013 with the goal of providing training in counter-poaching operations and providing advanced tools to aid in detecting illegal wildlife products brought across borders and through airports. However, since 2013, it appears that poaching levels have only decreased in South Africa, and have in fact increased in many other African countries despite US assistance. This suggests that US aid is not always used properly, as some local government officials and members of the military play an active role in helping smuggle wildlife products out of Africa. Such corruption can lead to civil unrest and potentially violence, creating an obstacle for US interests in Africa. Corruption makes it difficult for US businesses and NGOs based in Africa to get work done. The potential of civil unrest makes it harder for the United States to successfully implement negotiated treaties and diplomatic initiatives in Africa, including programs aiming to promote sustainable and efficient development.
It is crucial for the United States to establish stronger partnerships with governments and NGOs, at both the national and local level, in order to put an end to wildlife trafficking. Through stronger partnerships and prioritization of anti-wildlife trafficking efforts, the United States will have a more active role in stopping patterns of corruption that soften current anti-poaching efforts. Since wildlife trafficking networks span across continents, a more coordinated international effort to find and eliminate these networks will go a long way in the fight against wildlife trafficking. Currently, most illegal wildlife products are caught at ports of entry, most commonly by customs agents at airports. If the United States worked with a broad coalition of international partners to target these trade networks, illegal products could be seized before attempting to leave the country of origin, and these illicit markets could be eliminated. Such efforts could consist of intelligence analyses to locate and disable leaders of trade networks, as well as conducting surveillance on prominent marketplaces that are often trading areas for these illegal products and arresting traffickers before their products can be sold.
Illegal poaching is on the rise because the demand for exotic animal products has not slowed. In Asia, particularly in China, ivory is used for jewelry and household goods that are thought to increase social standing, while rhinoceros horns are becoming more popular due to their supposed medicinal powers. China announced in late 2016 that it plans to stop all ivory commerce by the end of 2017; the United States should also adopt a similarly firm stance as it is currently the world’s second-largest market for ivory. Current US federal laws still allow for the import, export, and trade of ivory under certain conditions, for example if an elephant was removed from the wild prior to 1976. This is not the same as the type of complete ban that China plans to enact. Allowing the ivory trade to remain legal in some cases incentivizes Americans to find new ways to acquire ivory. Although current US laws aim to encourage only the legal sale of old ivory, it can be difficult to date ivory and therefore likely that recently poached ivory will find its way into the US marketplace.
Former President Barack Obama recognized the importance of stopping illegal wildlife trafficking. Since this issue is of national security concern, it must play a more prominent role in US policymaking. Combatting wildlife trafficking will not only help preserve the Earth’s biodiversity, it will also help the United States further develop key African partnerships that will be essential in combatting terrorist groups in Africa.
Emma O'Malley is the Environmental & Energy Politics Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She also works at an environmental non-governmental organization that focuses on international ocean preservation. Prior to her current role, Emma worked for a DC think tank, specializing in energy politics. Emma earned her BS in environmental sciences and international relations from the University of Virginia.