Can The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Help Curb Illegal Wildlife Trafficking?

By D.A. Barber AFKI Original Published: August 2, 2014, 05:55am
Photo: United Nations Environment Program Photo: United Nations Environment Program

On August 4, the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit will hold five signature events, one of them being “Combating Wildlife Trafficking” – “an opportunity for African leaders to join together and share their ideas on how to best counter the poaching threat,” according to the White House website.

The White House included the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Fellows in the event in hopes to mobilize the next generation of African leaders in wildlife conservation.

But it’s more than just conservation.

“Part of the problem is realizing that this is up there with drug smuggling and arms smuggling and it needs to be addressed the same way, and the same way isn’t involving wildlife people, it’s involving people who know how to do intelligence gathering and enforcement and prosecutions,” Dr. Susan Lieberman, Executive Director of Conservation Policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society told AFKInsider.

“In addition, ivory trade is strongly linked to corruption and weak governance, adds Allan Thornton, President of the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency told AFKInsider.

Some 25,000 elephants are being killed each year alongside nearly 1,000 rhinos across Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Central African Republic, Sudan, Chad and Niger.

That makes the up-coming U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit an awkward situation for President Obama, since current U.S. laws give him the power to enforce sanctions against some of these nations who are attending the Summit.

Under the Pelly Amendment, the president can impose trade sanctions if a country is certified to be “diminishing the effectiveness” of an international conservation treaty.

A petition citing the international wildlife trafficking agreement known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was submitted late June by a number of organizations urging President Obama to enact just such trade sanctions on Mozambique over the country’s alleged facilitation of elephant and rhinoceros poaching.

“Available evidence indicates that Mozambican nationals constitute the highest number of foreign arrests for poaching in South Africa. Organized crime syndicates based in Mozambique are driving large scale illegal trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory,” the petition states, urging the United States to “enact substantial trade sanctions.”

President Obama also issued an “Executive Order against Wildlife Crime” a year ago during his visit to Tanzania – a country which sees more elephant poaching and more ivory smuggling than any other African elephant range state, according to the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency.

And this past February, the President approved the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, which “positions the United States to exercise leadership in addressing a serious and urgent conservation and global security threat.”

A Global Security Threat

With security and conflicts being issues that will be raised at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the issue of wildlife trafficking will, no doubt, be part of that conversation as well.

“In each case across the continent, where poaching escalates, instability increases,” Adam M. Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA told AFKInsider.

“With its links to organized crime and even insurgent groups, it is a major security issue,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on June 28 following the week-long inaugural UN Environment Assemb in Kenya, which addressed illegal wildlife trafficking as well as the links between environment, poverty and human well-being.

“It is a direct threat to security through the abundance of armed poachers, as well through threat finance to non-state armed groups like militias and terrorist groups,” Christian Nellemann, Senior Officer of the United Nations Environment Program Rapid Response Unit told AFKInsider.

During that June UN Environment Assembly meeting, a report from the United Nations Environment Program and INTERPOL was released that detailed the extent of the security threat. That report, The Environmental Crime Crisis, concluded: “Ivory also provides income to militia groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

Ivory similarly provides funds to horse gangs operating in Sudan, Chad and Niger.

Given the estimated elephant populations and the number of projected killed elephants within striking range of these militia groups, the annual income from ivory to militias in the entire sub-Saharan range is likely in the order of $4 to $12.2 million,” according to the report.

Driving this illicit market is increased consumer demand in Asia, particularly in China. According to a 2013 U.N. report, large seizures of ivory bound for Asia have more than doubled since 2009 and according to Born Free USA, a single horn of a rhinoceros can fetch “$60,000 a kilo” on the black-market.

“The thing that is driving this, in addition to demand in Asia, is the corruption,” Dr. Lieberman at the Wildlife Conservation Society told AFKInsider. “This wouldn’t happen – these large container loads of ivory don’t just make their way across central Africa to ports in Mombassa or Tanzania – without people knowing about it. There are not that many trade routes,” said Lieberman.

The Summit Opportunity

Still, the question remains: What exactly can the U.S. do during the upcoming U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit to rally the African leaders to take action?

According to the Environmental Investigation Agency’s Allan Thornton, the U.S. has made $10 million available, portions to Kenya and South Africa, to support anti-poaching measures. Other U.S. funds are being released through the State Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to fund training for rangers and promotion of judicial education relating to these issues.

But rather than throwing more money at the problem, other approaches have been suggested for both the U.S. and the African leaders.

“Much of the illegal trade involves organized crime and they can help in supporting the entire enforcement chain and both the UN and INTERPOL in investigating and working with the countries directly in building further an effective enforcement effort – including prosecution,” United Nations Environment Program’s Nellemann told AFKInsider.

Born Free USA’s Roberts would like to see a more hands-on approach that

includes having the range states close their borders to ivory imports and infuse anti-poaching and wildlife law enforcement efforts on the ground.

“And impose trade sanctions against nations such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique that are consistently implicated in poaching and illegal wildlife trade. Sanctions regimes can be powerful tools to undercut the financial impetus for these illegal operations,” Roberts told AFKInsider.

“You could take out ten poachers; there will be another ten that will come in,” Dr. Lieberman at the Wildlife Conservation Society told AFKInsider, noting: “A lot of the poachers are not coming from local communities or local villages, they’re coming from outside.”

Lieberman thinks one of the important things that international events like the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit can do is simply elevate the attention at the highest level so heads of state and ministers are starting to pay attention.

“And it sound like ‘what’s the big deal,’ but if they pay attention, and they’re under a little pressure, they turn around to their different departments and say ‘why aren’t you doing something about this,’” says Lieberman.

 

 

 

 

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