By Alicia Alvarez , SHFWire.com
WASHINGTON – Networks that illegally traffic in wildlife have grown, and authorities now regard the international trade as more of a national security issue than an environmental issue.
Wildlife trafficking is thought to be the third-most valuable illicit business worldwide, with an estimated worth of $8 billion to $10 billion annually. According to theDepartment of State, people in the United States purchase nearly 20 percent of all legal and illegal wildlife products on the market.
Birds are the most numerous contraband animals, along with millions of turtles, crocodiles, snakes and other reptiles.
These trends in international environmental crime were discussed Monday at the Henry L. Stimson Center.
Wildlife traffic across borders has been regulated since 1973 by the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species, but each year millions of species are ripped from their habitat and sold into the market. Other animals, such as elephants and rhinoceroses, are hunted by poachers who remove their tusks and sell them in an illegal black market.
The elephant population in central Africa declined by 62 percent from 2002 to 2011.
A report about a program, Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants, managed by CITES, released in December 2013 suggested that 15,000 elephants were killed illegally in 2012.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told the audience made up of government employes and members of environmental groups that he witnessed the damage poachers inflict on elephants when he was a college student on an exchange program.
He was hiking in the woods with a group of people from the Samburu tribe when they came across an enormous gray stinking mass.
“It was a bull elephant that had been slaughtered, and it was only when we were walking on its side that we realized what it was. You could see where the tusks had been taken out and the way the body had been destroyed,” he said.
Monica Medina, senior director for international ocean policy at the National Geographic Society and co-host of the event, said that crimes related to wildlife are not new, but they have stopped being viewed as solely an environmental problem. They are now related to national and international security.
Organized crime, terrorist groups linked to illegal wildlife trade
According to experts, wildlife trafficking is run parallel to other global crimes such as drug smuggling, human trafficking and gunrunning.
The Department of State said that organized criminal syndicates, insurgency groups, military units and some terrorist groups are the ones involved in commercial wildlife trafficking. Their participation threatens the stability of countries, fosters corruption and encourages violence to protect the trade.
Luis E. Arreaga, principal assistant deputy secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs of the Department of State, said wildlife species are in high demand and bring high profits. The risks of trafficking wildlife are low, but international measures are being put in place to toughen the consequences.
In July 2013, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that made combating wildlife traffic a priority and later released the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking.
The strategy seeks to preserve species, promote global peace and economic stability by enforcing laws that prohibit wildlife trafficking, raising public awareness about the issue, and expanding on international cooperation efforts.
A new defense mission, but no extra funding
James Alverson, director for global threats at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, said that the authorities who were mainly focused on counter-narcotic operations are now focusing on other forms of transnational crimes.
Alverson said the biggest challenge the Defense Department has, however, is that Congress has expanded its authority to combat wildlife trafficking but hasn’t raised its budget.
In the last five years, new technology has been a boon for illegal trafficking networks – keeping it ahead of security and finding markets.
Social media, celebrities enlisted in the cause
Madhuri Kommareddi, the director of program development at the Clinton Foundation, said the foundation is addressing poaching by working with organizations that are already involved. The foundation is using social media and celebrities to bring attention to the issue and last year sponsored a sculpture of a 10-foot pink elephant during New York Fashion Week.
Coons said he still sees a chance to turn the situation around.
“We will only stop wildlife traffic if we incorporate and empower voices from everywhere,” he said.
Alicia Alvarez is a Spring 2015 reporter for the SHFWire from Universidad Rafael Landivar in Guatemala City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-408-1489.