Over the past few decades, the population of forest and savanna elephants in Africa has declined at an alarming rate.  Similar declines have occurred in the populations of rhinoceros, gorillas, tigers, turtles, and many other species throughout the world.  Habitat destruction associated with the spread of agriculture and logging into formerly remote areas has consistently been a leading cause of these losses.  In recent years, though, poaching has emerged as the most serious threat to these species.  Aimed at satisfying consumer demand for wild animal parts, prized especially in newly affluent Asian countries for use in jewelry, ornaments, clothing, and traditional medicine, poaching has escalated rapidly worldwide.

The decimation of endangered animals caused by poaching and related wildlife trafficking has continued unabated despite a multiplicity of national and international laws and agreements already in place that are intended to prevent it, most notably the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (“CITES”).  CITES was devised in 1973 to regulate (and when appropriate, ban) international trade in wild animals and plants.  More than 160 countries have since adopted it.  CITES does not provide for an independent mechanism to implement or enforce its requirements, however; instead, it depends on member countries to ensure that its provisions are followed.  Since many of these countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, lack the means or the will to uphold its dictates, CITES has not had a strong enough impact on many of the unfortunate practices that it was designed to curb.

Along with a number of nongovernmental organizations dedicated to protecting wildlife, the U.S. State Department formed the Global Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking in 2005 to bring greater public attention to the illegal wildlife trade and to support global efforts to stop it.  The Coalition was later expanded to include five other countries and more than a dozen international nongovernmental parties.  The impetus for forming the Coalition was largely moral, aimed at addressing grave concerns about the threat of extinctions and the needless suffering and destruction of wild animals that poaching causes.  By increasing public awareness of these ethical issues, the Coalition hopes to significantly diminish the consumer demand for rhino horns, ivory tusks, turtle shells, tiger skins, internal organs of gorillas, and other parts of animals, thereby reducing the profitability of poaching and the motivation for undertaking it.

This past summer, President Obama advanced the American commitment to this matter by issuing Executive Order 13648 on “Combating Wildlife Trafficking.”  The Order created a Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking (headed jointly by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Interior, and the Attorney General) and directed the Task Force to devise and implement a plan to assist other governments in their efforts to combat the problem. Notably, the Executive Order frames the problem more as a threat to the “national interest” of the United States, particularly its national security, than as a moral affront to the sensibilities of Americans who revere and respect the natural world.  In doing so, it identifies the increasing role of organized crime and terrorist groups in conducting the trade and using the resulting profits to advance their own agendas as among the threats to the national interest.  “Blood ivory” has joined a chilling lexicon of terms like “blood diamonds” and “conflict minerals” that describe the means by which terrorists, criminals, and warlords finance their illegal activities, undermining the security and civil society of countries in the process. The Order also identifies the “emerging” role wildlife trafficking has played in the spread of infectious diseases such as the Ebola and avian influenza viruses and the adverse consequences that trafficking can have on a country’s eco-tourism economy.

In addition to enacting appropriate laws and reducing the market demand for wild animal parts, responsible governments have sought to counter wildlife trafficking by ensuring that local police forces and park rangers who protect wildlife preserves are adequately trained, armed, and equipped.  This strategy has taken on added urgency as advanced weapons flood the black market from unstable or recently deposed regimes and become readily available to poachers.  The effectiveness of such efforts, of course, ultimately depends on the commitment and political will of leaders, especially in more prosperous Western countries.  These nations are better positioned to provide the financial resources required for the training and technological support that local enforcement authorities need to prevail against poachers and their criminal or militant associates.  President Obama’s approach of framing the matter as a question of national security, rather than simply as a question of fundamental moral concerns, should help to broaden the base of support for these measures.  The likelihood of effective action being taken on the American side should also be greatly enhanced by the involvement of Hillary Clinton, who championed this cause while serving in the Obama administration and who has remained devoted to it in her work as a private citizen.