Wildlife trafficking – poaching and illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife parts – is a major threat to the security and stability of nations worldwide.  It is often perpetrated by organized criminal networks, and profits are known to finance armed militants in Africa.  Poachers threaten the safety of rural communities and generally undermine decades of conservation and development gains supported by USAID and others.  And, in the last decade, more than 1,000 rangers have lost their lives protecting wildlife.

Last week marked the culmination of recent efforts to change this dynamic and recognize wildlife trafficking as a serious crime deserving the attention of law enforcement, judges and policy makers.  On February 11, the United States released its National Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking, in which we resolve to strengthen domestic and international efforts in a whole-of-government approach.  On February 13, leaders from around the world met at the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade to commit to take action on this crisis.

Operation Cobra II: Leopard skins seized at Ethopia

Leopard skins seized in Ethopia / Operation Cobra II

As USAID’s representative on the U.S. delegation, I was proud to tell attendees about the Agency’s leadership on the issue, and the success of our programs in curbing wildlife crime.  One of the priority actions agreed to in London — strengthening cross-border co-ordination and support for regional wildlife law enforcement networks — has been a focus of USAID’s work since 2005.  Our regional program in Asia, in partnership with the Departments of State and Interior, supported “Operation Cobra II,” a 28-country, month-long collaboration that resulted in 400 arrests of wildlife criminals, including several kingpins of the trade.  Law enforcement officers from the 28 countries made 350 major wildlife seizures across Africa and Asia and confiscated 36 rhino horns, three metric tons of elephant ivory, 10,000 turtles, and 1,000 skins of protected species, among other items.

In addition to strengthening law enforcement on the frontlines, USAID makes longer-term investments to deter future wildlife crime.  Take Kenya, where a surge in wildlife crime is putting elephants, rhinos, and the livelihoods of 300,000 Kenyans in the tourism industry at risk.  Despite the costs of inaction, only four percent of convicted offenders have been sent to jail in the past six years.  Recognizing this trend, USAID supported the Government in formulating the Wildlife Conservation and Management Bill and Policy of 2013, which took effect on January 10, 2014 and increased penalties for poaching and trafficking.  In the first test of the new law, a Chinese man caught with a 7.5 pound elephant tusk was sentenced to pay a 20 million Kenya shilling fine ($230,000) or spend seven years in prison.

dIvory seized at Entebbe Airport, Uganda. Credit: Operation Cobra II

Ivory seized at Entebbe Airport, Uganda. / Operation Cobra II

In London, Prince Charles aptly noted: “As vital as strong enforcement is, we can – indeed we must – attack demand.”  A growing part of USAID’s portfolio is making progress on this root cause of wildlife trafficking.  With our support, the “Fin Free Thailand” campaign recently unveiled its “Blue List” of 70 hotels that will no longer serve shark-fin soup or any shark meat.  In Thailand, Vietnam and China, the iThink campaign uses key opinion leaders to create a groundswell of public opinion against wildlife purchases, including ivory and rhino horn.  Through numerous actions, including substantial support for Operation Cobra (I and II), its recent crush of illegal ivory in Hong Kong, and by committing to no longer serve shark’s fin soup at official functions, the Government of China has emerged as an important partner in  efforts to cut demand for illegal wildlife products.

All told, USAID supports anti-poaching activities in 25 countries, and will devote at least $30 million in 2014 funds to combat wildlife trafficking.  We are scaling up our response at the frontlines to stop poachers and traffickers, while also working to change the policies, attitudes and incentives that define this crisis.  Last year we started work on another priority discussed in London — analysis to better understand the links between wildlife crime and other organized crime and corruption.  This year, we’ll use that to prioritize and support transnational collaboration to counter trade in ivory and rhino horn.   We’ll also roll out a system for prioritizing ranger patrols in dozens of African parks, and host a competition for innovative solutions to the crisis from the brightest minds in academia, civil society and the private sector.

In the last few years as many as 25,000 elephants have been killed each year, often by armed groups slaying dozens or hundreds at a time.  Other rare species are facing similar fates due to illegal wildlife trade.  Prince Charles told those of us who met last week of the need “to take urgent action to put a stop to this trade, which has become a grave threat not only to the wildlife and the people who protect them, but also to the security of so many nations.”  USAID has a strong foundation on which to redouble its efforts alongside those of the global community.  If we all follow through on our commitments from London, the opportunity to end wildlife trafficking as a major threat to biodiversity and people is within our reach.