Addressing Conservation Crime
by Emily Myron -- November 19th, 2012
I recently took a break from my work on the Chesapeake Bay to return to one of my first interests, one of the reasons I pursued wildlife conservation – conservation crime. This year’s Kathryn Fuller Symposium, hosted by WWF and National Geographic, was entitled “Conservation Crime,” and included talks on illegal wildlife trade and illegal logging, emerging tools to combat these crimes, and how we can move forward as a nation and as a global people to stop these heinous acts. This symposium was in stark contrast to last year’s symposium, “Conservation Forward: Ideas that work and how scientists can effect change,” but it was still filled with passionate speakers, new ideas, and a feeling of purpose and urgency.
The ‘conservation crimes’ at the heart of this symposium are not the illegal killing of species for subsistence purposes, these are the result of a global organized crime network centered around exploiting wild species. While many of the talks centered around African elephants and rhinoceroses, which are being slaughtered at an unprecedented rate, countless species are targeted, including great apes, pangolins, big cats, sharks, turtles and tortoises, mahogany, and rose wood. These actions are unsustainable and, if not stopped soon, several species face extinction.
While the symposium covered a wide range of topics, I am going to focus this post on a new and exciting commitment from the State Department. Conservationists have largely fought the war against wildlife trafficking, thus far, but governments are starting to take notice. Secretary Clinton recently held a Partnership Meeting on Wildlife Trafficking at the Department of State, where she recognized that “…wildlife trafficking has become more organized, more lucrative, more widespread, and more dangerous than ever before.” This means that not only is this a conservation issue, “it is also a national security issue, a public health issue, and an economic security issue that is critical to each and every country.”
Wildlife trafficking is incredibly well organized – poachers are heavily armed (including with helicopters, in some places); they have developed creative ways to export wildlife products, taking advantage of porous ports and corrupt officials; and then the products diffuse into a global market (including to the United States, which is the second-largest destination market for illegally trafficked wildlife in the world). This illegal trade supports terrorists and failed states, as well as creates serious risks for the spread of disease and the safety of those protecting wildlife in situ. According to one of the symposium’s speakers, Dr. Kent Butts of the U.S. Army War College, at least 40% of all interstate conflicts in the last 60 years have been fueled by abusing natural resources. With rhinoceros horn valued at $30,000 per pound, it isn’t hard to see how exploiting these species can be incredibly lucrative for militant operations.
At the symposium, we were joined by Under Secretary of State Bob Hormats, who is a champion of this issue in the State Department. Hormats rhetorically asked the audience who is paying these poachers; who is able to supply them with AK47s and helicopters; who has enough money to bribe state officials and law enforcement? Understanding the key players will be crucial to shutting down some of the most dangerous traffickers, and Hormats suggested that it is in the US’s best interest to use their intelligence to answer these very questions, both for the survival of countless species and to increase national security. He promised to see that this issue becomes part of a national agenda, in addition to raising political attention, public awareness, strengthening law enforcement capacity, and working with partners around the world to address these conservation crimes.
It has been incredible to hear the commitments the US government is making to address this issue (Clinton promised $100,000 to help support regional wildlife enforcement networks). Such recognition and commitments open the door to a whole new suite of partners and creative minds. As they always say, the larger the tent, the more you can get done under it!
However, it is important to remember that the illegal wildlife trade is a two-sided coin – it requires both supply and demand. Global politics and military strength may be able to slow the supply and/or intersect the supply at key pinch points in the chain of custody; but tackling this issue will require a concurrent decrease in demand. Fortunately, there are already a number of campaigns working to raise awareness and decrease demand – but I will discuss that in my next blog.