Law Enforcement Efforts Underway to Combat Wildlife Trafficking

Posted by Jessica Graham
March 19, 2014
A Tigress Looks on at Kamla Nehru Zoological Garden in Ahmadabad, India

My colleagues and I in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) are focused on the topic of wildlife trafficking as a significant crime.  While individual country programs have addressed environmental crime, including wildlife trafficking, through law enforcement and justice sector programming for some time, INL’s strategic engagement on this issue really began relatively recently, in concert with our longstanding conservation colleagues from the Bureau of Oceans, Environmental, and Scientific Affairs, regional bureaus, and many other partners across the Department and interagency community. 

Working closely with these colleagues, INL began developing a strategic approach to confronting the daunting challenges involved in wildlife trafficking, including transnational organized crime and corruption.  Building on ongoing efforts to establish regional wildlife enforcement networks around the globe,  we were approached to support a regional wildlife enforcement network workshop in Central Africa in April 2012, which brought together law enforcement, government officials, and other stakeholders from more than seven countries in the region to share information and discuss enforcement strategies.  I was pleased to participate in this workshop, which was productive in the sense of increasing collaboration among key stakeholders in the region.  Gabonese President Ali Bongo held the second ever ivory burning ceremony a few months after the workshop to signal his commitment and leadership to rid this illicit product from the market.  We succeeded in fostering international awareness and framing wildlife trafficking as a form of transnational organized crime and as an issue that knows no borders with devastating consequences to the environment, the global economy and security.   

In May 2012, then-Senator John Kerry held the first ever hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to highlight the security impact of wildlife trafficking across Africa.  Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became passionate about this issue after her visit to Africa, where African heads of state repeatedly raised the issue with her, noting they were losing their natural heritage and many rangers’ lives battling on the front lines to protect the species that roam freely across borders.  She issued a “Call to Action” in November 2012 that put wildlife trafficking -- and its impact -- in the global spotlight.

A white rhino is photographed in Nairobi National Park on September 19, 2012. [AP File Photo]

As the crisis has continued to escalate, the focus on wildlife trafficking has continued to gain momentum on the international agenda, thus rebuilding the hope of conservationists and NGOs worldwide that concrete action would be taken to stop the slaughtering of some of the world’s most threatened and endangered species.  President Obama’s Executive Order 13648 to Combat Wildlife Trafficking, signed on July 1, 2013, called upon 17 government agencies to coordinate a broad based approach to this multi-faceted issue, sending strong signals to our partners overseas.  During a visit to Africa, President Obama also announced $10 million to support wildlife trafficking-related law enforcement capacity building. 

Though our efforts to fight wildlife trafficking in Africa were in motion, we needed to address the Africa-Asia nexus to better confront this global issue.  In January 2014, the Department, USAID, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported Operation Cobra II, a global cooperative operation coordinated among law enforcement officials from 28 participating countries, modeled on a similar operation -- Cobra I -- that took place in 2013.  This investigative training initiative was held at the International Law Enforcement Academy in Bangkok through the USAID ARREST Program and was implemented by FREELAND, an NGO based in Bangkok.  Cobra II resulted in over 400 arrests and 350 major wildlife seizures in Asia and Africa, including elephant ivory, rhino horn, turtles, eels, and rosewood. 

On February 11, I attended an event at the London Zoo hosted by the Zoological Society of London, one day before the high level London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade.  As I was listening to keynote remarks from Iain Douglas Hamilton, an expert and lifetime conservationist who lives in Kenya and has devoted his life to studying and saving elephants in London, the U.S. National Strategy on Wildlife Trafficking was released -- a significant representation of the efforts and commitment of the United States and our international partners to elevate wildlife trafficking as a security and foreign policy issue.  Last November, the U.S. destroyed nearly six tons of our confiscated ivory stockpile, and the U.S. National Strategy calls for a U.S. ban on commercial trade in elephant ivory, with limited exceptions.  As the United States takes on a leadership role to combat the corruption and organized crime that fuels wildlife trafficking and illicit proceeds, other countries have also seized the moment.  Kenya, for example recently strengthened its decades-old Wildlife Act.  China recently destroyed 6.1 tons of its ivory stockpile, and France and Chad have destroyed their stockpiles as well.  It is my hope that more countries will follow suit and begin treating wildlife trafficking as a serious crime by increasing penalties and ensuring that prosecutions lead to convictions.  It is our global duty to deter criminals from further trafficking in what is a finite and precious resource: wildlife.

About the Author: Jessica Graham serves as a Senior Advisor in the Anti-Crime Office in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

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