“In the last decade, almost half of Africa’s elephants have been killed for their ivory, and some experts are predicting that both elephants and rhinoceros will be extinct by 2030,” said Nancy Lindborg, President of the U.S. Institute of Peace at a recent event on wildlife poaching and trafficking. The illegal trade in protected wildlife is worth US$7-10 billion—some of which has ended up in the pockets of armed groups like Al-Shabaab and the Lord’s Resistance Army, said Lindborg.
While combatting illegal wildlife trade is a major challenge, some efforts to reduce demand for illegal products have been successful. Representative Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and author of the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt (END) Wildlife Trafficking Act of 2016, recognized China for its leadership in shutting down its legal trade in ivory, a move spurred by popular campaigns led by Chinese youth and civil society.
Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) warned, however, that not all ivory markets have been closed down. “You’re seeing a drop in demand, but at the same time you’re seeing an increase in firepower on behalf of Al- Shabaab and groups like this,” which has helped fuel the trade, said Chairman Royce. We now have a better understanding of how these complex trafficking networks operate, said Coons. Increasingly sophisticated, they may also traffic in weapons, drugs, or even sell people into sexual slavery.
Strengthening the rule of law and prosecutions is also critically important in countries with fragile institutions, said Coons. He said an African leader told him, “Who are you to come over here and lecture us about preserving our beautiful iconic wildlife when your country has already developed? … I have people who are hungry, and who need jobs, who need health care, and who need a future.” Coons stressed the importance of “engaging the human communities around dedicated parks so that they see benefits for them and their children of the wildlife staying, rather than seeing a benefit from poaching it.”
Chairman Royce and Senator Coons are cosponsoring the Delta Act, which seeks to provide a structure for the United States to work with the governments of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, as well as with NGOs, to preserve the Okavango River Basin, a crucial habitat for elephants and rhinoceros.
Royce contrasted “smart development” growth with plans to dam the Okavango rRver. Such large infrastructure projects may present short-term gains to countries and communities, but can prove destructive and unsustainable in the long run, he said. “Stay engaged,” he urged the audience. “Get more involved, get your friends involved. We all have a stake on this planet.”