Skip to main content

Save wildlife from trafficking

By Carter Roberts, Special to CNN
updated 11:18 AM EST, Wed December 12, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Carter Roberts: Wildlife trade a growing global criminal enterprise poorly addressed
  • It's an environmental problem and world crime issue, destroys nations' natural wealth
  • He says rebel militias, organized crime use funds from illicit wildlife trade; rangers outgunned
  • Roberts: Governments must use technology, enforcement to stem supply and demand

Editor's note: Carter Roberts is the president & CEO of World Wildlife Fund in the United States, which is the world's largest network of conservation organizations, working across 100 countries.

(CNN) -- An unprecedented global crime wave threatens the most important natural places on Earth and we are failing in our efforts to stop it.

Look past the drug wars, the counterfeiting industry and human trafficking and you'll find one of the next biggest criminal enterprises in the world: the trade in illicit wildlife.

Carter Roberts
Carter Roberts

Trafficking in wildlife and its body parts is exploding in popularity among global crime syndicates. Unlike other illicit trades, killing and selling parts from rhinos, tigers and elephants holds advantages for criminals: The product is poorly protected at its source, its trade is poorly regulated and wildlife crime is poorly investigated and lightly punished. For a hardcore criminal, illicit wildlife trafficking is a low-risk, high-reward bonanza.

News: Rhino poaching hits record numbers in South Africa

An analysis released Tuesday and commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund -- based on interviews with governments, military and civil society leaders -- underscores that illicit wildlife trafficking is not just an environmental problem, but a transnational crime issue.

It compromises the security of countries and destroys natural wealth. INTERPOL and other law enforcement groups agree that the involvement of organized crime syndicates and rebel militias in wildlife crime to fund their activities and purchase weapons has increased. It also highlights that black market wildlife trade hinders sustainable, social and economic development. The violent nature of poaching reduces the effectiveness of governments, erodes the rule of law and affects the growth of local communities.

Authorities estimate the illegal wildlife trade to be worth up to $10 billion annually -- or almost $20 billion if you count the illegal trade in timber and fisheries products. That puts it among the top illegal trades in the world. As a direct consequence of these profits, the killings are way up: Africa loses tens of thousands of elephants each year for their ivory, wild tiger populations have plummeted to as few as 3,200 and rhino poaching in Africa is exploding.

News: Booming illegal ivory trade taking severe toll on Africa's elephants

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



For years South Africa boasted low rates of rhino poaching, with approximately 20 rhinos killed annually. In the past five years, the number has soared exponentially; 618 rhinos have been poached in 2012. Vietnam, China and Thailand drive much of the illegal wildlife demand but we shouldn't forget that Americans are complicit in this trade. After China, the United States may be the second largest market for wildlife products in the world, a significant percentage of which is illegal, including illicit ivory trinkets being sold in Manhattan and international rhino horn trafficking rings operating out of Los Angeles.

We're going to lose this fight if we don't up our game. We need solutions as sophisticated as the criminals we face. Crime syndicates employ helicopters, night vision equipment and high capacity automatic weapons. Park rangers are vastly outgunned and often outmanned.

There is a way forward that offers some hope. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made this a strategic imperative for U.S. interests around the world, emphasizing it as a major national security issue, and we are beginning to engage other governments in this discussion. It goes far beyond the loss of animals. Poaching decreases food security for rural communities, and evidence points to the sale of ivory as a means of funding rebel militias in places like Central Africa.

News: Thousands of crocodiles rescued from smugglers in China

South Africa rhino poaching hits record
Poaching on the rise in Africa

The private sector is taking notice. Google just announced a signature charity giving initiative, funding WWF in the development of cutting-edge technologies to help us detect and track both animals and poachers on the ground. This project will develop a new surveillance approach to greatly increase enforcement effectiveness by intercepting the poachers before they can do harm.

This is a step in the right direction, but we'll need governments to build not just the capacity but also the resolve to apply the technology and enforcement at a much greater scale. Across the world, we need to strengthen criminal investigation, prosecution and sentencing on wildlife crime. That means more money and resources for law enforcement to support, for example, specialized investigative and forensic methodologies. Simultaneously, we need awareness-raising campaigns to reduce demand, especially among consumers in Asia, and to use the best available market research to guide social media campaigns.

We need governments on both the supply and demand side of this trade to work together and bring serious commitments to the table in March, when representatives for some 170 nations will come together in Thailand -- itself a major market for illegal ivory -- for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Here they will aim to make good on the promises to get a handle on this epidemic. A major litmus test of the convention will be the nations' ability to make convincing commitments to address all aspects of the crisis.

News: Photographer documents trafficking of endangered animals in Asia

We can roll back this wave of crime, but we're far from making that happen. There are promising signs but we will need a sustained tenfold increase in efforts from consumers, communities, the private sector, and most importantly, from governments to stop the slaughter before it's too late.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carter Roberts.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
updated 11:12 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
updated 9:20 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
updated 2:28 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
updated 2:41 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
updated 8:01 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
updated 1:53 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
updated 8:08 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
updated 3:03 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
updated 6:37 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT