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    The White House Is Getting More Serious About Wildlife Crime

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    An elephant in Tanzania, via Doug Wheller/Flickr

    The pace of poaching and the growth of wildlife crime has skyrocketed in the last five years, pushing elephants, rhinos, and myriad other species towards the brink. Recently, that growth has spurred more attention from US authorities, with both Hillary Clinton and John Kerry speaking out against the trade. Now, a pair of announcements from the White House suggest the Obama administration is taking the anti-trafficking fight to new heights.

    The first is largely symbolic: senior officials announced yesterday that the US would destroy its six-ton elephant ivory stockpile in a bid to raise awareness. The massive stockpile contains everything from whole tusks and carved art, and is the result of 25 years or more of seizures. The ivory, which is currently stored in a secure facility in Denver, will be destroyed in an event on October 8 by US Fish and Wildlife officials.

    The move follows the Philippines' recent decision to destroy its own five-ton ivory stock, and the thinking is that destroying stocks provides two-fold benefits. One, crushing millions of dollars worth of ivory is a great way of raising awareness of the trade, which remains sorely lacking. Getting people to ask why ivory would be destroyed is a solid first step towards turning popular tide against the illicit wildlife trade, which is currently decimating elephants at a faster rate than anti-poaching efforts can stop.

    The other hope—although less of a concern with the US's secured stock—is that destroying seized ivory will prevent ivory on the market from being laundered. Ivory harvested before the 1989 international ivory ban is still legal today, but because it's difficult to date ivory and with a lack of a universal permit and tracking system for antique ivory, it's hard for authorities to prove that ivory is illegal, especially if they're indifferent about the issue in the first place. New tests are helping sort out how old ivory is, but by destroying stockpiles worldwide—legal or otherwise, as is the case in the US—will help cut down on avenues for ivory laundering.

    The second announcement from the White House follows up on a July executive order from President Obama pledging to create a council dedicated to slowing the trade. Yesterday, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the members of the new task force. The council includes top officials from major wildlife NGOs, legal experts, as well as top lawyer from eBay, which has made strides in past years at cutting down the online trade.

    Wildlife Conservation Society president and CEO Cristián Samper, who was asked to join the panel, said in prepared remarks that the "US government must be a leader in this fight.

    “African elephants, alone, are being lost at an unprecedented rate and the demand for ivory shows no decline," he said. "Approximately 35,000 elephants were killed by poachers last year—some 96 animals each day." Samper noted that 

    As Bryan Christy noted, the council lacks any former investigators, which does seem an odd choice. The US is a major market for the wildlife trade in general, and budget cuts have left Fish and Wildlife with just 216 special agents. (The DEA alone has more than 4,000.) If the US is to make a dent in its own contributions to the trade, it'll need to step up enforcement at home.

    But as Hillary Clinton noted in remarks yesterday, the US's fight globally is going to require a diplomatic approach. While the argument that wildlife trafficking is a national security issue has merit, the US getting seriously involved (read: militarily) in anti-poaching efforts in Africa is diplomatically dangerous. Plus, there's not a whole lot of evidence that the US spending millions on policing Africa would have a huge effect. Poachers have gotten extremely sophisticated, and there's an enormous amount of land to cover. 

    The choices for the White House's anti-poaching panel reflect the prevailing wisdom for fighting the trade right now: to quell poaching, eliminate demand. Asia remains the largest source of demand for ivory and rhino horn, and a combination of international pressure of those countries as well as awareness campaigns highlighting the huge cost of driving African species to extinction will hopefully make strides towards people giving up wildlife products.

    And as demand falls, so will the massively-inflated value of ivory and horn. Combine that with stricter laws and policing, and hopefully the most aggressive players in the poaching game will give it up and reduce poaching to levels manageable enough for elephants and rhinos to rebound.

    Naturally, that's a lot of ifs, and the economics of the wildlife trade don't appear ready to crash any time soon. But the US applying pressure on the world stage could certainly help coalesce more international efforts, such as the CITES sanctions laid out this year. The 1989 ivory ban was the result of international cooperation, and helped slow an incredible pace of elephant slaughter for more than a decade. Now, as the wildlife trade has exploded again, it's time to renew those efforts.