Wildlife poaching a threat to national security

Story highlights

  • Wildlife poaching and trafficking is a multibillion-dollar industry, authors say
  • There is no simple solution to a problem of this scope and complexity, they say

Chris Coons is a Democratic U.S. senator representing Delaware. Jeff Flake is a Republican U.S. senator representing Arizona. The views expressed are their own.

(CNN)When Cecil the lion was killed in July outside Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, the international community reacted with grief and outrage. But while it didn't receive the same level of coverage, that very same week, five elephants were poached in Kenya's Tsavo West National Park for their ivory tusks. These elephants represent just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of iconic wildlife slaughtered every year to fuel the illegal trade in wildlife products.

Today, wildlife poaching and trafficking is a multibillion-dollar industry. But it's one that not only threatens to extinguish iconic wildlife in Africa and Asia, it also fuels dangerous criminal syndicates that threaten global security.
Chris Coons
We traveled to Kenya together this past summer, and we visited the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust near Nairobi, a deeply inspiring sanctuary for many elephants who have been rescued because poachers had killed their parents for ivory. Though the trust has been rescuing and rehabilitating elephants and rhinos orphaned by wildlife trafficking for nearly 40 years, the scale of poaching and trafficking has grown at an alarming rate over the last decade.
Today, it's a global crisis. In 2014 alone, more than 1,000 rhinoceroses were illegally killed in South Africa, a 9,000% increase since 2007. Since 2005, two subspecies of African rhino and one subspecies of Asian rhino have disappeared, and several others have reached critically low population levels. The simple reality is that we will see populations of rhinos, elephants and other iconic wildlife species face dramatic declines, and possibly even extinction, if unsustainable poaching continues unchecked.
Jeff Flake
Now, as the world becomes more interconnected, with ever more avenues for sharing information, goods and ideas, transnational criminal networks have taken full advantage. They have found new ways to move illegal products across borders, stay one step ahead of law enforcement -- which often lacks the resources and legal footing to track them -- and make billions of dollars while they're at it.
Perhaps a surprising, though critical, example of this involves wildlife trafficking, which has turned into a highly profitable and relatively low-risk business for criminal groups and possibly some terrorist organizations. In fact, as demand for wildlife products has exploded throughout Asia, rhino horn now trades at prices higher than gold or heroin, and elephant tusks are sold on the black market for many more times than the amount paid to the original poacher. These profits help fund criminal networks that, in turn, fuel corruption and insecurity that threaten the stability of individual communities and entire nations.
There is no simple solution to a problem of this scope and complexity, one that is not just a question of conservation, but also a national security concern. As members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that's why we last week introduced the END Wildlife Trafficking Act to tackle this issue from all sides.
Our bill establishes a federal response to the wildlife poaching and trafficking crisis and breaks down silos between our government's security and conservation efforts by requiring a cooperative interagency approach. It provides country-specific and regional initiatives, taking into account the different circumstances and threats an affected country faces, and the capacity of a country's government to respond to these threats.
Working with the governments of affected countries, the task force will prepare a strategic plan for each country, including recommendations to combat poaching or trafficking, and then coordinate an appropriate federal response. Our bill authorizes the federal government to provide assistance to affected countries based on the task force recommendations. It strengthens law enforcement capacity by allowing the training of law enforcement and wildlife rangers, supporting professional investigatory capacity, enhancing border inspections and controls, and providing tools to better track illegal wildlife routes.
Strategies to encourage community-based ‎conservation should also be employed based on the needs of affected communities. Our bill will further facilitate on-the-ground conservation efforts that emphasize creative solutions for economic development in communities threatened by poaching. By supporting programs that can provide economic benefits to local communities through tourism, agricultural development, and other means, these communities have greater interest and financial ability to protect their wildlife.
Ultimately, though, wildlife trafficking cannot be stopped without addressing the core of the problem: the high demand for ivory that makes selling illegal wildlife products so lucrative. This bill therefore supports critical efforts to reduce demand through the use of bilateral agreements with high-demand countries to reduce the appeal of illegal wildlife products like ivory and rhino horn.
During our visit to Kenya, we saw the devastating impact of wildlife trafficking on some of the most iconic animals in some of the most beautiful places on Earth. But the impact doesn't stop there. The growth of this illegal industry threatens the stability of vulnerable ecosystems and local communities, the health of their economies, and security at home and around the world.
We cannot afford to stand by. We can and must work together and use every tool at our disposal to curb wildlife poaching and trafficking.