Obama to launch major wildlife trafficking initiative in Africa

President Obama will launch a new initiative in Tanzania on Monday aimed at combating illegal wildlife trafficking, according to White House officials.

Using his executive authority, Obama will convene a Cabinet-level task force composed of the State, Interior and Justice departments that will be charged with devising a national strategy to curb the illegal trade of wildlife across the globe. The initiative also will include $10 million specifically earmarked for addressing poaching in Africa, particularly of rhinos and elephants.

Grant Harris, the senior director for Africa for the National Security Council, told reporters aboard Air Force One that Obama also will announce that he will detail a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official to Tanzania to help them tackle the issue.

This illicit activity—in which elephants, rhinos, sharks and other species are hunted in developing nations and sold to consumers in wealthier countries--  has reached unprecedented heights in recent years. It is now valued at between $7 billion to $10 billion a year, placing it among the world’s top five illegal activities after drugs, human trafficking, counterfeiting and arms.

The demand for animal parts, driven largely by Asia, has had a devastating effect on Africa’s wildlife. Roughly 30,000 African elephants were killed illegally in 2012, the largest number in 20 years. And this year alone South Africa has lost almost 450 rhinos, which could make 2013 a record for poaching of the imperiled species.

Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of conservation strategy and science for the World Wildlife Fund in the United States, said the move was significant because it brings "high-level attention to this serious crime issue" in an unprecedented way.

"This takes it up to the highest level in the government," Hemley said in an interview. "It's putting it at the level of narcotics and human trafficking."

Harris said that rhinoceros horns are now selling on the black market for $30,000 a pound, or "literally worth greater than their weight in gold," as he put it. Ivory from elephant tusks is selling or $1,000 a pound. "It's decimating the populations of some of Africa's iconic  animals, including rhinoceros and elephants as well."

In March an international convention of wildlife officials, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), refrained from imposing sanctions on Vietnam and Mozambique — which conservationists consider the world’s worst offenders in the illegal trade of rhino horn — but strongly urged the two countries to do far more to stop poaching.

U.S. efforts on this front have suffered a financial hit due to sequestration. The Fish and Wildlife Office of Law Enforcement canceled plans this year to train 24 new agents who investigate criminal activity.

"One thing we have been doing so far is raising the global profile of how bad this issue is," Harris said. "We've also had a massive diplomatic campaign, including under the leadership of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when she was at the State Department, convening people at State and making this a big diplomatic part of our policy."

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the president  had raised the issue with China in an effort to address the demand side of the equation. "I know its come up at the president and the Secretary of State level with the Chinese," Rhodes told reporters aboard Air Force One. "A lot of these syndicates are based in China."

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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Juliet Eilperin · July 1, 2013