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International Wildlife Trafficking 

By Ambassador Robert P. Jackson — Ruthless, merciless international criminals are violently robbing African citizens of one of their greatest and most precious resources. Am I referring to trans-national mafias or hardened narcotics traffickers?  No, in this case I am not. 

I am referring to wildlife poachers.  They have already exterminated Cameroon’s rhinoceroses, and, if additional measures are not taken soon, Cameroon and other countries’ elephants will be the next species to become extinct. Illicit trade in threatened and endangered species is a multibillion-dollar business that criminal organizations exploit across many continents. 

The intense demand for products derived from Africa’s majestic and culturally treasured land animals, especially elephants and rhinoceroses, threatens peace and security, particularly in Cameroon and the Central African region. High demand, combined with difficult enforcement issues, attracts transnational criminal networks also involved in money laundering and trafficking in arms and narcotics.  High prices for wildlife products breed corruption, threatening the rule of law and thwarting economic development in supply countries.

Loss of biodiversity affects freshwater supplies and food production, and it robs local communities of economic resources.  In developing countries, rural families often depend on local wild animals and plants for economic needs.  Actual and potential tourism revenue, for example, will be lost if developing nations cannot depend on their unique species to draw visitors.

But do the profits that poachers and traffickers earn from killing these animals and robbing Cameroonians of their rightful patrimony accrue to Cameroonians and other Africans?  The answer is no.  The illicit moneys generated by this trade go to the middle men and traders who buy ivory or rhino horn and ship it to Asia or other markets, where unscrupulous vendors sell it at hugely inflated prices.  That money does not go to African governments, communities or people, and if the poachers and traffickers have their way, it never will.

While it is impossible to precisely track these animal populations, illicit killings are reaching crisis proportions.  There are roughly 600,000 elephants in Africa, one-third the number a few decades ago.  Experts estimate that 25,000 African elephants were killed in 2011 for their ivory. 

Local rangers and law enforcement authorities often are no match for poachers and other hardened criminals armed with AK-47s and grenade launchers or the trafficking networks that try to corrupt government officials to facilitate moving the poached animal parts across borders.  Authorities warn that in some countries proceeds from poached wildlife likely finance the purchase of weapons and ammunition, exacerbating regional conflict.

Wildlife trafficking also may pose a public health risk.  Up to 75 percent of human diseases — such as HIV/AIDS, SARS, avian influenza and the Ebola virus — may be caused by infectious agents transmitted from animals to humans.  The illicit trade of animals or their parts bypasses public health controls and can put human populations at risk for disease. Strong demand for specific wildlife products is a prime catalyst of trafficking; so many efforts to stop trafficking include campaigns directed at consumers. 

For example, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the FREELAND Foundation runs awareness campaigns using videos, posters, billboards, websites and a mobile education unit in parts of the world where demand for products from endangered species is high.  Economic incentives, cultural or religious practices, and simple lack of consumer awareness contribute to the demand. Reversing traditional practices and resisting social pressures are difficult, but the long-term consequences of failure may be devastating.

Ivory is prized for jewelry, ornaments and religious carvings and is valued as a luxury item.  The flow of ivory from Africa to East Asia has been estimated at 72 tons per year, worth $62 million, and equivalent to 7,000 elephants.  Organized criminal networks are attracted to wildlife trafficking for high profitability and low risk of prosecution.

In the international management of ship¬ments, criminals do not hesitate to use violence, or threats of violence, against those who may stand in their way.  Despite coordinated international efforts to stop wildlife trafficking, the threat continues because demand is high.  Many governments, intergovernmental bodies, law enforcement organizations and nongovernmental conservation groups are working to end wildlife trafficking. 

More than 170 nations, including Cameroon, adhere to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which sets standards aimed at ensuring that international wildlife trade does not threaten the survival of any species of wild animal or plant. In 1973, the United States was among the 21 original signatories.

In 2005, the U.S. Department of State created the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking to coordinate anti-trafficking efforts among U.S. and foreign government agencies, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector.  The strategy has four main objectives:  improve enforcement capacity, reduce consumer demand, implement tougher wildlife crime penalties, and catalyze political will among supply and demand countries.

In April 2012, several Central African countries agreed to establish a wildlife enforcement network.  The United States welcomes this commitment.  We have also been encouraged to see that Cameroonian and other Central African leaders are devoting increasing resources and attention to the problems of wildlife poaching and trafficking. 

The United States is aware — as are our partners in Central Africa — that much more work remains to be done.  We stand ready to assist Central Africans in their efforts to stop the poachers and to safeguard the wildlife treasures indigenous to this region.  Cameroon’s elephants, drills and other species belong to the people of Cameroon, but they also belong to the people of the world.  Let’s all work together to stop the poachers and traffickers from robbing us all of this invaluable patrimony.

First published in The Post print edition no 01395

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