World Environment Day is a time to reflect on our stewardship of the environment and how our choices impact the world around us. Wildlife, from elephants to bees, comprises a critical part of ecosystems upon which humans depend. One of the most challenging and satisfying responsibilities of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES) is to join the international community in protecting these precious species and habitats, including from illegal trafficking in wildlife and wildlife products. Such illegal activities undermine national security, economic development, the rule of law, and the social fabric of local communities, in addition to threatening the very survival of magnificent animals like the elephant, rhino, tiger, polar bear, and sea turtle.
Throughout Africa and Asia, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) implement programs to conserve elephant habitats, educate citizens and government officials, and stop poachers and ivory traffickers. On a recent trip to Tanzania, I saw herds of elephants and their calves in Tarangira National Park. Watching the adults protect their young by circling around them was moving -- but even the most watchful herd is no match for gangs of armed poachers. Earlier this year in Cameroon, poachers butchered hundreds of elephants for their tusks. To make sure this appalling scale of elephant slaughter never happens again, the State Department helped organize a wildlife law enforcement workshop in Central Africa, bringing together governments, NGOs, and the donor community to forge a permanent solution.
Rhinos in South Africa and elsewhere are under threat from poachers to feed the increasing demand for rhino horn in Asia. In 2011, over 400 rhinos were illegally killed for their horns in South Africa, and the rate of poaching incidents appears to be increasing this year. We are working with governments and NGOs in Asia and Africa to stem the tide of rhino killings.
Tigers, one of the most iconic species in the world, play a critical role in the biodiversity and health of the ecosystems in their habitats. But wild tiger populations are dwindling: only an estimated 3,200 wild tigers remain in thirteen range countries. We have joined the global conservation community in a variety of efforts to protect wild tigers and combat poaching and trafficking, such as supporting the World Bank's Global Tiger Initiative and Project Predator, an INTERPOL law enforcement initiative that combats tiger trafficking.
In the northern Arctic, polar bears face an increasingly dire future from habitat loss: world experts predict that two thirds of the polar bears may be gone by 2050 due to diminishing sea ice. Since polar bears don't recognize international borders, the United States is partnering with other Arctic countries to conserve the polar bear and its remaining habitat through the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and bilateral agreements with Russia and Canada.
Six of the seven species of sea turtles found around the world are currently either threatened with or in danger of extinction. We help to ensure their conservation and survival by working with other countries in the development and implementation of turtle excluder device (TED) programs for commercial shrimp trawlers, which reduces sea turtle deaths in commercial shrimp trawl fisheries.
The State Department will continue with our diplomatic efforts to cooperate with others to end poaching and the illegal trade in wildlife. So on World Environment Day and every other day you have the opportunity to help us promote wildlife conservation and preserve endangered species. You make a difference by choosing not to purchase or consume products made from endangered species, such as rhino horn, tiger skin or bone, ivory, or sea turtle eggs, meat, or shells. You can help galvanize critical public support for national and international efforts to save these animals by becoming an environmental steward and encouraging others to do the same.