On Thursday, Nov. 15 the International Conservation Caucus Foundation held a hearing on the Global Poaching Crisis for members of the U.S. Congress and their staff. The hearing’s purpose was to discuss the recent, unprecedented spike in illegal trade in wildlife and links to organized terrorism.
The U.S. State Department, launched by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at her November 8 meeting “Wildlife Trafficking and Conservation: A Call to Action”, has taken an interest in wildlife poaching because of a suspected link between the illegal trade of wildlife and terrorist groups like al-Shabaab and al Qaeda. Wildlife products, such as ivory and rhino horn, have increased substantially in value because of the increase of in wealth of Asian nations, especially China. The funding secured through the illegal sale of wildlife products is used as an untraceable form of currency by terrorist groups and represents a significant source of illegal revenue. Clinton and Under Secretary Robert Hormats have both taken a personal interest in the matter, not only because of the threat to conservation but also to national security.
Undersecretary Hormats was the first to testify at the hearing. He began by highlighting a recent trip he had taken to Namibia, Botswana and South Africa and the destruction of nations stability that was caused by poaching. Throughout Hormats’ testimony, he stressed the importance of engaging the heads of states and high-level ministers in Africa in order to help shape their policies and procedures. In addition, Hormats wants to spearhead an effort with Chinese officials, citing a recent survey that shows many Chinese people do not know that to obtain ivory an elephant has to be killed. Hormats stressed the importance of providing on-the-ground resources for the people working to protect species from poaching, as well as a more coherent global wildlife enforcement network. This network would include U.S. and foreign enforcement personnel from various agencies that would have more authority to stop the illegal trade.
Dr. Michael Fay, Senior Conservationist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Ian Saunders, Executive Director of the African Environmental Film Foundation, and David Barron, Founder of the International Conservation Caucus Foundation also testified on the poaching crisis. Dr. Fay and Mr. Saunders both stressed how poaching is linked to organized crime, and with the sharp increase in the price per kilogram of ivory, the funding of these groups will only increase unless the U.S. intervenes. All three witnesses suggested that poaching will continue to occur unless aid is given to rural African communities. The U.S. government and NGOs need to encourage more local stewardship that will help conserve these targeted species. They expressed the idea that the local people must feel that they have tangible ownership of the wildlife. This endeavor will require both money and further intervention by outside organizations. Mr. Barron laid out several steps that the U.S. could take to meet this challenge, including making illicit wildlife trafficking a predicate offense.
Not one of the witnesses mentioned hunting as possible solution. Without doubt, hunting plays a positive role in the conservation of African elephant and rhino populations. Hunters from around the world are willing to pay for the privilege to pursue these and other species. In 2004 Namibia generated more than $28 million from trophy hunting, and in 2001 Tanzania generated more than $27 million, with more than a third of this income going back to local people. Hunting revenues are directed toward local communities and because locals gain revenue from hunting and the tourism it attracts, villagers will be more inclined to protect the surrounding wildlife and natural resources from poachers. Without an incentive, many local villages tend to see wildlife in direct competition with their livelihood. Hunting and its associated revenues can encourage villages to take a more proactive approach to ward off poachers because they will see direct benefits from their wildlife.
The hearing started a discussion on the global reach of poaching. Not only does this illicit activity fund terrorist groups, it also has a tremendous impact on conservation. Much needs to be done to stop the global poaching crisis. Heads of state, as well as the local peoples need to be engaged and use their influence to bring attention to the issue. Awareness on poaching needs to be spread or the full impact cannot be known. Laws must be tightened and enforced and enforcement officers need to be given better training. Nations and NGOs need to work together to stop the illegal trade of wildlife.