John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Tracking the Traffickers: President Obama Against Poaching

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
July 15, 2013

Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) officials display recovered elephants tusks and illegally held firearms taken from poachers at their headquarters in Kenya's capital Nairobi, January 16, 2013. (Noor Khamis/Courtesy Reuters)


This is a guest post by Emily Mellgard, research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.

Wildlife trafficking ranks among the top five most lucrative illicit commodities in the world, alongside drugs, human trafficking, counterfeiting, and weapons. Unfortunately, the response by the U.S. federal government is small.

Africa’s friends called for President Obama to discuss the escalating slaughter of elephants and rhinos during his recent six-day trip to Africa from June 27 to July 2, 2013. Poachers are decimating Africa’s elephant and rhino populations. U.S. and international leaders have increasingly been calling attention to the links between wildlife poaching and trafficking and organized crime–even terrorism.

The safari planned for the Obama family during the Africa trip, which would have been an ideal venue for a presidential statement, was cancelled due to the high security costs. Nevertheless, the president did issue an executive order to increase U.S. commitment to anti-poaching and wildlife trafficking efforts.

The executive order dedicates U.S. $10 million, to combat “wildlife trafficking, related corruption, and money laundering,” in addition to funds already dedicated to that goal. This amount is painfully small given the magnitude of the fight against poaching and trafficking. Wildlife trafficking, both in live animals and animal parts, is a U.S. $7-10 billion annual business, a thousand times greater than the funds Obama pledged to combat it.

Under the executive order, the United States will provide foreign governments with technical assistance and training to increase their capacity to halt trafficking on both a regional and a bilateral basis. The president is also launching a Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking and an Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking to develop counter-trafficking strategies. In addition, the administration recently approved a Transnational Organized Crime Reward Program, which enables the State Department to offer rewards for information leading to the arrest, dismantling, or disruption of criminal organizations outside the United States. The executive order further calls for tighter enforcement of existing U.S. domestic law and regulation on illegal wildlife trafficking relating to elephants and rhinos. The United States remains a major market for trafficked wildlife, though it is not nearly as large as China’s for ivory or Vietnam’s for rhino horn.

Given current U.S. fiscal constraints, with respect to elephants and rhinos, American diplomatic pressure on consuming countries might be more effective in combating wildlife trafficking than American money. At home, moreover, the administration should mobilize the considerable force of American civil society to suppress the consumption of trafficked animals and animal parts within the United States.

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