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Watershed moment in the expanding field of environmental security

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During the final days of President Barack Obama’s recent three-country tour of Africa, the White House launched a new wildlife trafficking initiative on July 1st which will re-prioritize matters at US government agencies to focus in a more coordinated way on wildlife poaching and trafficking.


Using his executive authority, Obama is to convene a Cabinet-level task force composed of representatives from the State, Interior and Justice Departments which will create a national strategy to combat poaching around the world. It will be led by the secretaries of State and Treasury and the US attorney general and requires a national strategy to combat wildlife trafficking within six months. The plan also calls for an expert on African wildlife from the US National Fish and Wildlife Service to be based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to work on the problem, at the request of Tanzanian officials

The illegal trade is fuelling rebel wars and is threatening the survival of elephants and rhinoceroses. The initiative will include a $10m push to train underpaid police officers and park rangers: $3m will go to South Africa, $3 m to Kenya and $4m elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.

The plan could have the side benefit of helping to stabilize parts of Africa plagued by insurgent groups, military and political analysts say.

“The entire world has a stake in making sure that we preserve Africa’s beauty for future generations,” Obama told a press conference he held jointly in with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kiwete on July 1st during the final leg of his tour.

The executive order said wildlife trafficking had reached crisis proportions in recent years, and it is hoped the action will crack down on the criminal gangs behind the explosion in trafficking, as well as hit demand for elephant ivory, rhino tusk and other animal parts.

The measures outlined in the executive order build on existing American efforts to help countries in Africa fight off the organised criminal gangs behind the poaching networks.

“Poaching operations have expanded beyond small-scale, opportunistic actions to coordinated slaughter commissioned by armed and organized criminal syndicates,” the order said.

“The survival of protected wildlife species such as elephants, rhinos, great apes, tigers, sharks, tuna and turtles has beneficial economic, social, and environmental impacts that are important to all nations. Wildlife trafficking reduces those benefits while generating billions of dollars in illicit revenues each year, contributing to the illegal economy, fueling instability, and undermining security.”

Within the last few months, the State Department and the United Nations (UN) have both declared wildlife trafficking to be a security threat. The UN said earlier this year that profits from the illegal ivory trade were funding were funding rebel groups in Central Africa.

Al Shabaab’s recent merger with al Qaeda makes the link between wildlife poaching and extremist ideology and terrorism more clear, according to David Hayes, Interior Department Deputy Secretary.

Grant Harris, the senior director for African Affairs at the National Security Staff, explained the reasoning behind Obama’s anti-poaching efforts to reporters travelling with President Obama’s entourage:

“Wildlife trafficking has really exploded in terms of scale and also in terms of the types of poachers and organized crime networks that are involved in this activity. And it’s decimating the populations of some of Africa’s iconic animals, including rhinoceros and elephants as well. Some estimates put this trade at $7 to $10bn a year……..To give you a sense in terms of the value, a rhinoceros horn is worth $30,000 per pound on this black market, which is literally worth greater than its weight in gold. And ivory is trading at $1,000 per pound.”

“As we see criminal networks getting increasingly involved – you see poachers with night vision goggles and high-powered rifles – you also see some rebel militias trading in ivory and rhinoceros horn as a source of currency and value.”

“It’s degrading good governance, because this is fuelling corruption and money laundering”, Grant went on.

The Obama initiative has drawn praise from conservation groups who have despaired at the explosion of wildlife trafficking over the last decade.

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