In the heart of Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser rainforest, U.S. diplomats scanned the trees. And then, there it was: a flash of orange moving through the branches. A Sumatran orangutan -- a mother, her wide-eyed infant holding on tight. Soon, three more pairs swung into view. The Americans watched, awed to be in the presence of one of humankind’s closest animal relatives. Only 7,300 of these critically endangered primates remain in the wild, threatened by loss of habitat and wildlife trafficking. For Atul Keshap, U.S. Senior Official for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), seeing these great apes in person strengthened his resolve and that of his colleagues to help save them from poaching and habitat loss.
Keshap was in Medan, Indonesia, to lead the American delegation at an APEC meeting. During his visit to North Sumatra, he and his team introduced a proposal to encourage APEC’s 21 member economies to work in a more coordinated way to fight wildlife trafficking.
The illegal wildlife trade is big business, worth perhaps $10 billion per year, but its devastation goes far beyond any price tag. In Sumatra, where as much as half of the forest cover has been lost since 1985, traffickers buy and sell not just orangutans and other primates, but also sun bears, tigers, and the Sumatran rhino. Some will become exotic pets; others will be killed for traditional medicines or rare foods. Many of the species here are on the brink of extinction, but the trade continues. Prosecutions are rare.
The United States endorses a comprehensive global, national, and local approach to solve this problem. International organizations can play a critical role in making sure that needed changes are broadly implemented -- and laws enforced. A multinational forum, such as APEC, can support national governments as they pass stricter laws against trafficking. It can also create an international space for law enforcement, customs and border officials, conservationists and judicial systems to share information that will help them identify, capture, and prosecute traffickers.
Grassroots efforts are just as important. We can do a better job of raising awareness. If local communities are unmistakably clear about the severity of the crime, how it undermines development and spurs corruption, and the economic impact of biodiversity loss, then they will be empowered to stand up to traffickers in their midst. What’s more, demand for trafficked wildlife will diminish.
The United States is already hard at work on local approaches in Sumatra. Through several programs run by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), we’ve provided more than $22 million to protect and manage 2.2 million hectares of forests where orangutans live. Right now, teams from the Tropical Forest Conservation Act program and the Indonesian Forest and Climate Support project are working with local groups to promote sustainable development as an alternative to deforestation. Also, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supports NGO-led conservation of Sumatra's rhinos, tigers, elephants, orangutans and gibbons. U.S. government funding enables these local and international groups to patrol the forest to stop poachers; investigate cases of wildlife trafficking; manage conflicts between humans and elephants, tigers, and rhinos; and teach communities about wildlife conservation.
Have you ever had the chance to see an endangered species in the wild? How do you think U.S. diplomacy can best support conservation efforts around the world?