For nearly a decade, poachers and criminal syndicates have been beating the system and driving hundreds of species closer to extinction.
Today, the White House counterpunched: President Obama released the first draft of the US National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, a big step toward putting these criminals out of business and protecting elephants, rhinos, and other animals around the world.
The highest profile part of today’s announcement is the President’s decision to tighten some of the biggest loopholes on ivory sales, imports, and exports. Congress still has an important role to play by taking the next step and stopping all US commerce in this gruesome market, but we are now in a better position than yesterday to stop the poaching that has taken such a tremendous toll on elephant populations.
During a major speech in Tanzania last July, Obama asserted that wildlife “is inseparable from Africa’s identity and prosperity” but is also threatened by poaching and trafficking. And the pain isn’t only felt by the animal kingdom—as we detailed in our report Criminal Nature, this deadly state of affairs creates huge consequences for national security, the global economy, health and the environment. Obama ordered the National Strategy in response, setting in motion a coordinated effort across the federal spectrum—including the Pentagon, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the State Department, the Department of Justice and a score of other agencies— to protect people and wildlife here and abroad.
Perhaps fewer than half a million elephants remain across all of Africa – in fact, on average, every fifteen minutes an elephant is killed for its tusks. Much of that ivory eventually makes its way to the United States, which is considered the world’s second biggest market for ivory, behind China. Today’s announcement acknowledges the role our country plays in the fate of the species, and is a hugely significant move that could help set the ball rolling for coordinated action elsewhere, much as last November’s US Ivory Crush helped prompt China, Belgium, France and others to destroy their stockpiles of seized illegal ivory.
Over the next few months, agencies will fill in the details with help from organizations like IFAW, beginning the crucial work of putting boots on the ground and overhauling outdated tactics.
We hope and expect that law enforcement officials will be given new tools to crack down on the smugglers, terrorist groups, and other individuals behind the slaughter, but there also needs to be public education to confront the root of the problem: consumer demand. And an effective Strategy will also highlight the best ways to direct American foreign aid funding and services so that wildlife are valued more alive than dead.
There’s a lot of work still to be done, but for the first time in a long while it feels as if the momentum is shifting – away from extinctions, and towards a world where these majestic animals are protected and treasured.