Taking a Stand to Crush Elephant Poaching

This post is co-authored by Azzedine Downes, president and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

At first glance, Denver, Colorado, might seem like an unlikely place for America to take a stand against a global criminal enterprise that undermines security, funds terrorism, and threatens some of the most iconic species on the planet with extinction in the wild.

But a suburb outside of Denver is home to the National Wildlife Property Repository, where our government safeguards nearly six tons of elephant tusks and ivory products seized by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. On November 14, the entire stock was hauled into the sunlight and ground into gravel by a rock crusher.

The public destruction of our contraband ivory stockpile sends the world a message that the United States has zero tolerance for the illegal wildlife trade.

Why the renewed concern, when elephants have been killed for their ivory for centuries? It's both because elephants are very near to being at the end of their rope and because nowadays, poaching is a far cry from being a poor man's means of feeding his family. Driven by demand in large part from newly wealthy Asian consumers, poaching has metastasized into a mechanized, militarized and multi-billion-dollar industry. The trade now involves a rogue's gallery of criminal syndicates, insurgencies and terrorist groups.

Globally, wildlife crime is worth an estimated $10 billion year--and nearly $20 billion if the illegal trade in timber and marine products is included, which places it as the fourth-largest criminal activity in the world, just behind drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking.

This is a conservation crisis--and one the likes of which our two organizations have never seen. Almost every day brings chilling news, the latest being from Zimbabwe, where poachers poisoned a watering hole with cyanide earlier this year, and more than 300 elephants who drank there died. Over the past decade, poaching has reduced an already depleted population of African forest elephants by two-thirds. In 2012 alone, at least 30,000 elephants were slaughtered--the worst body count since the international commercial ivory trade was banned in 1989.

It is also a profound human tragedy--one that systematically shreds the already threadbare social fabric of many struggling African states. The trade disrupts their economies, undermines their rule of law, and exacts a heavy toll in human life, with more than 1,000 park rangers killed over the past decade. Poorly paid and under-armed, these rangers are no match for battle-hardened insurgents descending on parks and game preserves with helicopters, automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. As President Ali Bongo of Gabon told an audience at the U.N. General Assembly in September, wildlife crime is "no longer just an environmental problem" but a direct "threat to peace and security on our continent."

Given its connection to militant groups, wildlife crime is now also a threat to U.S. security. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the White House in September, summarized the top-line conclusion of a new classified intelligence community assessment. Citing the role the ivory trade plays in helping to sustain the Lord's Resistance Army, Al-Shabaab and other insurgent groups, Clinton reported the assessment's conclusion that wildlife crime poses "significant security challenges for African nations and also threatens American economic and security priorities across the continent."

Conservation groups like ours are doing all we can, but we're up against militias armed with heavy weapons and dangerous agendas. This has become a war, and we can't win it alone. Fortunately, the Obama Administration recognizes this, and last July President Obama signed an executive order to combat wildlife trafficking that will culminate with a national strategy for a whole-of-government response.

The gauntlet was thrown down northeast of Denver this week, but it must be followed by other actions. From our perspective, here's what we must do:

First, put our own house in order by asking Congress to enact a moratorium on domestic ivory sales. Despite laws designed to comply with the international ban (which, it is important to note, has plenty of loopholes), we remain one of the largest markets for ivory in the world. Our existing regulations are complex and difficult to enforce because the market for legal ivory such as antiques can serve as a cover for the illegal market. Once ivory enters the retail chain, it's almost impossible to distinguish between legal ivory and illegal ivory. A blanket ban--at least until elephant populations recover--would close the loopholes. In turn, that would give the United States more credibility to enlist the world's largest ivory market--China--to do the same. Congress should also help law enforcement personnel enforce our existing laws by ensuring they have the resources they need to apprehend, prosecute and convict wildlife criminals.

Second, support our African allies in this fight with training and equipment for outmanned and out-equipped park rangers. Equally important: Support the establishment of regional wildlife law enforcement networks (known as WENs) to coordinate the fight against wildlife trafficking across porous borders.

And last but not least, bring our diplomatic weight to bear to persuade China, Thailand, Vietnam and other major demand-side countries to join us in this fight. After all, this is a global trade, so while we need to make real strides here at home, we also need the support of other countries. Otherwise, we face the very real prospect of losing elephants in our lifetime.