Photo via Richard Ruggerio / USFWS
President Obama is currently in the middle of an African tour, and while much of it has focused on development and democracy, this is a pleasant surprise: Today the White House announced he would sign an executive order pledging more US government coordination and international support in the fight against the $19 billion trade. Additionally, at a speech today in Tanzania, Obama is expected to announce $10 million in new funding to African nations that are home to the trade.
Of that number, South Africa and Kenya—poaching hotspots for rhinos and elephants, respectively—will each get $3 million, and the rest will be spread around sub-Saharan Africa. According to a White House release, these State Department funds will be dedicated towards increasing enforcement efforts and developing better legal framework and information sharing across agencies and countries.
The White House also announced the creation of a USAID wildlife technology challenge, which it says will help support and promote the use of tech in fighting the wildlife trade. Anti-poaching efforts have gotten increasingly high-tech in the last couple years, with everything from drones to poison rhino horn dyes gaining adoption. But it's all still quite expensive and a pretty small market, so the USAID contest should hopefully bring more innovation and business interest into the anti-poaching game.
Still, the big news is that the White House is fully on board with the wildlife trafficking fight. As I noted last week in a longer look at the politics of the wildlife trade, it's become a clear national security concern, one that the State Department has been looking at for at least a couple years now. Additionally, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and funding programs like USAID have given international support to combate wildlife trafficking for a long time.
But beyond the new funding initiatives, the fact that President Obama is announcing a desire to increase international cooperation in attacking the trade on the enforcement, legislative, and demand fronts is a great step forward. Aside from chronic underfunding and corruption, one of the biggest problems in fighting the wildlife trade is just how convoluted efforts are. As I noted last week, imagine if heroin were legal in some places and semi-legal in others (if it was older than a ban), as ivory and rhino horn are. Now combine that with rampant corruption, and you've got an incredible ability for officials to look the other way.
It's not like the trade is some mysterious entity. We know where elephants and rhinos are being poached, and we know where their illegal products are ending up. But doing something effective with that intelligence has so far proven difficult, as African rangers find themselves outgunned by militant poachers and Asian borders remain porous to high-demand animal products.
Now, President Obama announcing a desire for increasing funding and cooperation in fighting the wildlife trade isn't going to solve anything overnight, and his desire to change legal framework is likely to face stiff resistance in Asian countries, including China. (Remember that the international trade of ivory and rhino horn is already illegal, but the legality of intra-national trade in pre-ban ivory and antique horn varies, which is a pretty massive loophole to deal with.) Still, it's a big step forward, and a positive sign that the wildlife trade is becoming more and more of an international concern.