The Washington Post

Obama announces initiative to combat wildlife trafficking

Wildlife Conservation Society officials measure the size of an adult male elephant during a collaring exercise in a remote area of South Sudan in June 2013. (STRINGER/REUTERS)

President Obama launched an initiative in Tanzania on Monday aimed at combating illegal wildlife trafficking and curbing widespread poaching of rhinos and elephants in Africa.

Using his executive authority, Obama established a Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking composed of the State, Interior and Justice departments to devise a national strategy over the next six months. He also created an independent, eight-member advisory panel that will offer recommendations to the task force.

In addition, the State Department will provide $10 million in training and technical assistance to combat poaching in Africa. Three million dollars will go to South Africa, $3 million to Kenya and $4 million elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.

“The president’s announcement puts wildlife trade on the map and raises its profile beyond a niche issue to one of global importance,” said Carter Roberts, president and chief executive of the World Wildlife Fund in the United States. “These are global crime syndicates that are robbing the wealth of Africa and it is fueling the trade of other things, such as drugs and arms. And eventually it will drive these species extinct.”

The hunting of elephants, rhinos, sharks and other species in developing nations for sale to wealthier countries is valued at $7 billion to $10 billion per year, placing it among drugs and human trafficking as one of the world’s top illegal markets.

The demand for animal parts, driven largely by Asia, has had a devastating effect on African wildlife. About 30,000 elephants were killed illegally in 2012 — the largest number in 20 years. South Africa has lost almost 450 rhinos so far in 2013, which could make this year a record for that animal.

Grant Harris, the senior director for Africa for the National Security Council, told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Tanzania that the president will assign a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official to that country to help tackle poaching.

With a black-market price of $30,000 a pound, Harris said, rhinoceros horns are “literally worth greater than their weight in gold.” Ivory from elephant tusks is selling for $1,000 a pound.

On Monday, South Sudan’s Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism announced that the government has expanded efforts to protect its remaining elephants by fitting animals with collars for remote tracking. The action aims to preserve an elephant population decimated by years of civil war and ivory poaching.

There are now fewer than 5,000 elephants in the region, down from about 80,000 in the 1960s and ’70s.

In March, an international convention of wildlife officials, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, 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. anti-poaching efforts have suffered a financial hit because of the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration: The Fish and Wildlife Office of Law Enforcement canceled plans this year to train 24 new agents who investigate criminal activity.

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 it’s 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 The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, 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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