Rangers in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a UNESCO World Heritage site where the Lord's Resistance Army has aggressively poached elephants for funding. By Jonathan Hutson/Enough Project
Fueled by militant groups and controlled by organized crime, the illegal wildlife trade has grown into a $19 billion a year business worldwide. As rangers and authorities from South Africa to Vietnam struggle with underfunding, corruption, and violent opposition, the trade has expanded from a conservation concern into becoming a legitimate security threat for many countries. Is that realization what's required to invite comprehensive, international action?
There's clear evidence that militant and insurgent groups in Africa, including Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army and al-Shabab, are funding their actions with ivory and rhino horn, and their aggressive tactics have decimated Africa's large mammals. Two-thirds of Africa's forest elephants have been poached in the last decade, the western black rhino was poached to extinction, and poaching of southern white rhinos has increased 5000 percent since 2007.
At the same time, rising demand for ivory and rhino horn in increasingly-affluent southeast Asian countries has made criminal groups powerful enough to be legitimately untouchable, while the corruption and bribe culture cultivated by the wildlife trade has cascaded into other damaging activities, such as the illegal logging that's robbing Laos of the value produced by its natural resources.
Let me put it in plain terms: Even if you don't give a hoot about existential threats to rapidly-disappearing animals and wild lands, wildlife trafficking has become too big, and too crime-ridden, to ignore.
The fact of the matter is that, with how politics has always worked, the wildlife trade is going to get more attention as a security concern than an environmental one. While traditional conservation and environmental crime groups have been discussing the horrors of the trade for years—and with elephants and rhinos being killed in record numbers year after year, the trade has indeed been an environmental crisis for a long time—the growing breadth of parties looking to combat the wildlife trade is telling.
Even if you don't give a hoot about existential threats to rapidly-disappearing animals and wild lands, wildlife trafficking has become too big, and too crime-ridden, to ignore.
For example, the World Bank announced earlier this year that it was concerned with the trade's human toll.
In a blog post, the World Bank's Valerie Hickey wrote, "Wildlife crime is leading to the proliferation of guns in exactly those areas that need less conflict, not more; it is providing money for corruption, in exactly those countries in which corruption has already stalled all pro-poor decision-making and doing business legitimately is already hard enough; and it is oiling the engine of crime and polluting efforts at good governance, democracy and transparency in exactly those communities that need more voice, not more silence."
That quote received prominent placement in a massive new report by the International Fund for Animal Warfare (IFAW) looking at the criminal side of the wildlife trade. As the report notes, the wildlife trade has become the fourth-largest illegal economy in the world, following only behind narcotics, counterfeiting, and human trafficking.
The drug trade is a good analog for much of the wildlife trade; richer consumers, rising demand, and incomplete enforcement efforts (caused largely by corruption and less by the sheer volume of product moving around, as is the case with narcotics) have sent prices skyrocketing.
A ranger in Chad looks over the carcass of an elephant killed by poachers. Armed with small arms like AK-47s, rangers in central Africa are regularly outgunned by militant groups dominating ivory poaching. Photo: Darren Potgieter/CITES/UNEP
That's why the wildlife trade is of concern to more people than simple animal lovers: Because it mirrors the drug trade so closely, it's fueling the same exact problems. Rising prices have attracted criminal elements from the world over, and the strongest have risen to the top, leaving a trail of human violence. More than 1,000 rangers in 35 countries were killed in the last 10 years, notes the IFAW report, and the untouchable wildlife kingpins in Asia are now nearing Pablo Escobar levels of power.
Considering that the wildlife trade now has many of the same social costs as the drug trade, when will there be a global response akin to the war on drugs? And would that even work?
In short, the groundwork has already been laid to develop heavier international enforcement efforts like those created in the drug war. In a landmark speech last November, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that wildlife trafficking had become a priority for the State Department. Importantly, she noted that it's become more than an environmental issue, saying, "What’s more, we are increasingly seeing wildlife trafficking has serious implications for the security and prosperity of people around the world." She also pledged State Department funds to help develop a more robust international enforcement network.
Current Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to these problems last May while still a senator, saying, "The net effect of these depredations is more insecurity, more violence, and more corruption—not to mention the devastation of existing and potential opportunities for tourism and economic development—and ultimately the depredation with respect to the stability of whole regions."
It's important to point out that framing the wildlife problem as a national security issue doesn't diminish the environmental impact—the goal either way is to kill the trade, which means stopping poachers and vendors, as well as convincing southeast Asia's newly rich that rhino horn doesn't give you erections, and that ivory isn't a object of class and wealth.
Note that no one has thrown out the specter of terrorism—thank goodness—in discussing the trade, which is important. While the last 12 years may suggest otherwise, something being a national security concern does not mean that said concern requires military action. The destabilizing effects of the wildlife trade is of concern to American interests, but it's also clear that it remains largely a criminal issue, and the last thing the US needs to do is start drone strikes in central Africa under the guise of protecting elephants.
Now, there's one enormously obvious problem with the US and allies ramping up enforcement action to mirror what drug enforcement agencies are currently doing: the global drug war remains a failure, and the efforts of the US and others in trying to stop that trade has become a geopolitical minefield. Do we really want to spend the time, money, and political capital to help developing countries crack down on their own leaky borders?
There's one major difference between the drug and wildlife trades, however, that makes enforcement of the latter possible: While the supply of narcotics is essentially unlimited, due to the ease of their growth and production, the supply of wildlife products is not. So while it's easy for anyone to cook meth—which thus making killing the meth market impossible—it's a hell of a lot harder for someone to grow a rhino and take its horn.
The Philippines recently destroyed its five ton stock of legal pre-ban ivory, which is a huge move towards clearing up any questions about legality of ivory in the country.
The supply of elephants, rhinos, tigers, pangolins, and everything else is rapidly dwindling (which is the entire point, of course), which makes protecting what's left an easier proposition.
For example, stopping the rhino horn trade is comparatively simpler than, say, stopping people from moving cocaine around the world. There are three main problems right now: There aren't enough rangers to protect rhinos in South Africa, corruption in southeast Asia means horns are easy to traffic, and legal loopholes, such as those regarding antiquities, mean not every horn is illegal, hampering authorities' ability to crack down on items they may find.
But those problems, compared to the diffuse nature of the drug trade, can be directly combated. Increased support for rangers on the source side, and more international pressure on the sale side, could go a long way towards cutting back on the already-small supply of key wildlife products out there. On top of that, clearing up the ridiculously convoluted semi-legal status of ivory, rhino horn, and tiger products—something the UN could truly pressure China and others on—would make enforcement even more effective.
Imagine if heroin was legal if it was older than 100 years—oh, and that you couldn't actually guess its age by looking at it—and that it was sort-of legal in countries that had a pre-ban supply and illegal in others. That's the state of the wildlife trade right now, and it's only going to change with coordinated international pressure.
While strides have been made recently through traditionally environmental channels—especially via this year's CITES conference, during which Thailand announced it would ban its legal ivory trade—the next level of diplomatic action will most likely only happen if the trade is given higher priority as a national security issue. I think it's clear that such a massive trade network is a threat to American interests. The good news is that the US State Department and other politically-powerful entities are increasingly admitting as such, which offers hope that protectors of our disappearing wildlife will get the support they need.