Wildlife Trafficking Programs Save the Lives of Those Who Cannot Speak for Themselves

6 minutes read time
A critically endangered Eastern Black Rhinocerous stands next to his mother at an enclosure aimed at isolating and protecting them.
A critically endangered Eastern Black Rhinocerous stands next to his mother at an enclosure aimed at isolating and protecting the species.

Wildlife Trafficking Programs Save the Lives of Those Who Cannot Speak for Themselves

On average, one elephant is killed every 15 minutes. In other words, by the time you finish reading this blog, at least one elephant will have died at the hands of poachers. We are in the midst of a battle -- a fight to stop violent criminal organizations from brutally massacring endangered species for their tusks, horns, furs, scales, organs, and other body parts. Ounce per ounce, rhino horn sells for more than gold or cocaine on the black market. Their horns are used for questionable medicines, decorative carvings, or as displays of wealth. These senseless motives are why several iconic species now face the very real possibility of extinction within our lifetime. It is up to all of us to stop the massacre of these creatures who cannot speak up for themselves.

The Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) combats transnational crime networks that threaten animals. Like other criminal activity, wildlife trafficking enriches criminal organizations and fuels corruption, brings insecurity and instability, weakens border security, and undermines the rule of law in places where government structures are already weak.

Leveraging the Bureau’s 40 years of experience fighting drug trafficking, our experts are working to strengthen our programming and partnerships to combat wildlife trafficking across the globe. Asia, in particular, serves as a major source, transit zone, and destination for illegal wildlife products, and is a linchpin in the illegal wildlife trade. If we are to make an impact on stopping wildlife trafficking, then Asia must be an area of focus.

Elephant ivory in boxes are placed to be destroyed in Hanoi, Vietnam. (Associated Press photo)

Our wildlife trafficking programs in Asia are making a positive impact. In Vietnam, as part of an INL-supported program, the Wildlife Conservation Society trained and provided equipment to the law enforcement officer who led an operation to arrest a rhino horn trafficker and seize horns worth $347,000. Last July, customs and law enforcement authorities at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, in collaboration with relevant forces, arrested a Vietnamese man who was illegally transporting 12 rhino horns weighing over seven kilograms in total from Angola. The man hid the rhino horns in baby formula, food, and clothes boxes. The customs officers are now working to prosecute the case and further investigate the wildlife trafficking ring.

Across the border from Vietnam in Laos, we partnered withthe Wildlife Conservation Society to train 26 law enforcement officers from Champasak Province on wildlife crime. The attendees participated in classroom sessions that covered information collection, investigation, arresting, evidence collection, techniques in using handcuffs, and process of case preparation for prosecution. Attendees also participated in field-based practical exercises such as bus inspections and court simulations. As a result, Lao ranger teams arrested 23 people suspected of wildlife trafficking activities in the Nam Et Phou Louey Protected Area on Laos’ northern border with Vietnam in March. The suspects were illegally entering the “Totally Protected Zone” of the protected area with hunting and logging tools such as chainsaws and guns. The rangers transferred them to local police for processing, and the Wildlife Conservation Society will continue to track the case’s progress through the justice system.

Thai customs officials display seized ivory, that was being smuggled to Laos, in Bangkok. (Associated Press)

Thailand is another hot spot for wildlife trafficking where our cooperation with Thai authorities has led to significant wildlife trafficking investigations. Recently, a group of Thai rangers who participated in an INL-funded joint the Wildlife Conservation Society and Thung Yai Naresuan East Sanctuary training course arrested a construction tycoon for poaching in a protected area. During this high-profile wildlife bust, the rangers confiscated carcasses of protected animals, as well as loaded weapons from the campsite of the tycoon and his three associates. A subsequent search of his residence revealed additional illegal weapons and two pairs of elephant tusks. Currently, officers from the Mae Scot CITES Checkpoint in Thailand, which INL supports through a grant to the Wildlife Conservation Society, along with officers of the Wildlife Law Enforcement Centre in Tak Province, are leading investigations into wildlife trafficking near the Thai/Burmese border. Last March, Thai officials arrested two traffickers who were transporting 24 elephant tusks and 16 elephant tails hidden in the cargo bed of their pickup truck. This is the first seizure of elephant products in this province in years, and it is a promising sign that government agencies in the province are starting to tackle wildlife trafficking. 

Similarly, training to combat wildlife trafficking was met with great success in Malaysia. With INL funding, Wildlife Conservation Society staff members were able to provide on-the-job mentoring to forest and air patrol teams in Malaysia. This support facilitated an operation involving 217 officers from six government departments in Johor State, Malaysia’s second most populous state, to take place. This seven-day operation led to the arrest of 32 Malaysian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese individuals for wildlife, immigration, and drug violations. In September 2018, we funded a week long workshop in Kuala Lumpur bringing together regional law enforcements representatives in order to develop their abilities to collect, analyze, and present at court forensic evidence in prosecutions of wildlife crimes. Starting in October 2018, we will be funding Malaysia’s first-ever canine unit dedicated to detection of wildlife trafficking to be used at the country’s ports of entry. 

Malaysian customs officers inspect elephant tusks outside of Kuala Lumpur. (Associated Press photo)

We’re also working in Northeast Asia. In August 2018, INL funding enabled the Wildlife Conservation Society to conduct a similar training for law enforcement officers, customs officers, border patrol agents, and the wildlife enforcement authority in Mongolia. The training covered topics such as implementing international standards for customs and border crossings; using intelligence networks to mobilize effective responses to trafficking; enhancing cooperation for cross-border investigations and prosecution of wildlife crime; building effective criminal justice systems to respond to trafficking; and identifying protected wildlife parts and products. This event is an example of U.S. interagency collaboration: INL provided the funding and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement provided the trainers.

The breadth of our programs to combat wildlife trafficking demonstrates the challenges ahead and urgency of the work that remains to be done. Together with partner nations, NGOs such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, and U.S. interagency actors, we can win the fight against transnational organized crime, diminish corruption and instability, and protect wildlife. That is a victory we will proudly recount to future generations.

Leslie Catherwood serves as a Foreign Affairs Officer in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs' Wildlife Trafficking Team.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.