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Africa’s Dead Elephants Emerge as US National Security Issue

  • William Eagle

In a U.S. crackdown, confiscated ivory was stacked for crushing last year at the National Wildlife Property Repository at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colorado.

In a U.S. crackdown, confiscated ivory was stacked for crushing last year at the National Wildlife Property Repository at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colorado.

The illegal killing of elephants in a national park in Kenya is now a national security issue in Washington, D.C. and in many more countries far from Africa. The issue of elephant poaching intensifies as Kenya announced news of the slaughter last week by poachers of Satao, one of Africa's largest elephants.
Governments are now talking about joining forces to get tough on the poaching and trafficking of elephant tusks and rhino horns, illegal activity that some experts say is a now a $20-billion business not just for poaching and traffickers but for armed terrorists as well.

Governments are sending a message to those who buy ivory. Under the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the French government destroyed three tons of ivory before television cameras. The United States pulled six tons from a warehouse and publicly crushed them for photographers in Colorado. China crushed six tons of ivory tusks in Guangdong province and incinerated another 28 tons in Hong Kong.

These destroyed elephant tusks were confiscated by governments from shipments smuggled in shipping containers from Africa, the harvest of the slaughter of Africa’s dwindling population of elephants.

Greater attention is now being directed at the source in Africa. Policy makers in Washington, D.C., have discovered that terrorists who de-stabilize African countries pay for their rebellions with the profits from selling the tusks of dead elephants.

More than a wildlife conservation problem

The killing of Africa’s elephants is a longstanding concern of wildlife conservationists. They are now joined by leaders in global law enforcement, economic development and better governance, says John Calvelli, an executive vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.

The reaction comes with the rapid growth of poaching and the entry of organized crime networks in the trafficking of ivory.

This is just reaching an epidemic proportion that’s having long-term implications for the survival of the species,” says Calvcelli. “They’re also creating real areas of uncertainty and de-stabilization.

“So at the end of the day that the report came out, all these footprints are pointing in that same direction. There is a call for action coming from the African nations themselves. We need to be dealing with this issue.”

Washington’s decision to get tough on poachers and traffickers is triggered by the rapid growth of an illegal industry some estimate is now a $20-billion business.

Brooke Darby, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, says poaching is no longer viewed as just a wildlife conservation issue. “The U.S. government and many other governments around the world have been looking at wildlife trafficking as a conservation issue for a long period of time.

“But I think in the last few years,” Darby says, “driven by the high demand and the high prices for wildlife product as well as the low risk of detection and very minimal penalties, we’ve really seen an uptick in organized criminal groups and – to some extent – terrorist networks being drawn into the trade.”

From drugs and arms to chopsticks and tusks

Major criminal syndicates have added ivory to their portfolio of illegal trafficking in gold, guns and drugs. As a consequence, poaching is fast becoming a serious crime and a threat to the survival of wildlife.

Among the natural resources of Africa, an estimated 30,000 elephants were slaughtered illegally in 2012 - double the number killed five years before, and triple the estimates of 14 years ago.

The United States was the first country to sign the 1974 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) outlawing the trade. But nothing stemmed the tide in poaching and trading of ivory tusks and rhino horns.

Nine months ago, President Barack Obama signed an executive order creating a Wildlife Trafficking Task Force. Among other measures, the order authorized $10 million worth of technical assistance to stop poaching in Kenya, South Africa and other sub-Saharan countries.

New funds and new enforcement ideas are part of the executive order. Even drones, once used strictly for the assassination leaders of al Qaeda in Yemen, are being proposed as aerial monitors of herds of forest elephants, locating carcasses, tracking poachers and traders.

“I think we have to look at all of these technologies to try to solve this problem,” says Calvelli. “The problem is bigger than just the usual approaches we have taken in the past. So we need to be looking at all different technologies and obviously the drone is one of the technologies that needs to be reviewed.”

AK-47s paid for with tusks

In April, representatives of 46 countries gathered at the London Zoological Garden and signed a declaration to stop the illegal trade.

Two months ago, President Obama issued a national strategy declaring that wildlife trafficking “now threatens not only national and global wildlife resources but also national and global security.”

Darby says that some of what she calls “terrorist entities” are involved. Many conservation organizations agree. Conservationists and development agencies have been struggling with poaching for years, writes Johan Bergenas in a recent Stimson Center report, Killing Animals, Buying Arms.

“And as the issue of poaching and wildlife crime becomes part of the family, if you will, of transnational crime challenge in the region,” says Bergenas, “I think we can all benefit from looking at it as a defense and security perspective and for the conservation and development community and the defense and security community to find overlapping opportunities to initiate programs on the ground and at the policy level to leverage each other’s resources.”

The president’s task force pulls leaders in the departments of Justice, Interior and State together to decide the next steps. But Bergenas cautions that for many countries truly effective cooperation “will take a long time.”

Who changed U.S. poaching policy?

The U.S. contribution to anti-poaching is part of an overall $80 million global commitment strategy marshaled by The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) laid out a three-pronged strategy: support Africa’s park rangers, stop the trafficking and tell consumers to stop buying ivory statues and jewelry. They have gathered $80 million in commitments from governments, foundations and others such as philanthropist Howard Buffett.

Calvelli gives former secretary of state Hillary Clinton credit for asking the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to determine if there was a crucial link between poaching and terrorism. The DNI confirmed that terrorist entities and rogue security personnel are poaching elephants and trading their ivory often in collusion with government officials in source countries.

“It’s pretty historic in one respect,” says Calvelli. “So many groups have come together in so short amount of time to deal with this issue. And in Secretary Clinton’s conversations with African leaders, you started to see that the call is really coming from the African leaders themselves. They were seeing the destruction of their natural heritage.”

This flurry of new activity could be the beginning of more effective enforcement against the international ivory and rhino horn trade, but some observers are concerned that new collaborative strategies will take too much time to implement. They fear that elephants and rhinos in the wild may not be able to wait that long.