Sunday, February 15, 2015

Obama Administration Unveils Plan to Forcefully Tackle Illegal Wildlife Trafficking

Illegal ivory products seized in New York

The Obama Administration has recently introduced a dynamic plan to tackle the illegal trafficking of wildlife which would include using American intelligence organizations to pursue and target people who benefit from the approximated $20-billion-per-year illicit market. The plan, which was drafted by the agents of the Interior, Justice, and State Departments, will also intensify pressure on Asian countries to put an end to the purchasing and selling of elephant ivory, rhino horns, and other items which President Obama called an "international crisis." It will also attempt to diminish the demand for those items on a global scale. However, the projected actions, which are the outcome of a two-year administration review on how to curb wildlife trafficking, are said to be backed by only a moderate increase in financing and staffing for the law enforcement division of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. The effort has been applauded by anti-trafficking experts as a crucial step, even as they stated the federal government faced a daunting responsibility. The plan came as the U.S has become the second-largest market for illegal wildlife products and a significant passage of products to Asia, where rhino horns are thought to cure illnesses like hangovers, headaches, and even cancer. Officials indicate that millions of pounds of illegal wildlife products are sold every year to American and foreign consumers.
Rhino horns seized in Hong Kong

The illegal wildlife trade has driven several species of animals close to extinction while sustaining the rise of international criminal syndicates. As part of the plan, the wildlife service is sending its officers abroad for the first time to help fight wildlife trafficking coming from South America, Africa, and Asia. One officer is stationed in Thailand, while three will be sent to Botswana, Peru, and Tanzania later this year. In its most current budget request, the Obama Administration called for $75.4 million per year for the wildlife service's law enforcement branch which is $8 million more than last year. In addition, roughly $4 million of financing would be used to aid efforts to halt wildlife trafficking in African countries and another $4 million to increase forensic labs and add special agents. However, wildlife service agents indicated that staffing remains deficient and investigations decreased from more than 13,000 in 2012 to roughly 10,000 in 2014. The wildlife service has 205 detectives and an extra 120 officers who inspect almost forty ports of entry, investigating more than 180,000 wildlife products last year. Since 2012, records indicated that law enforcement agents have detained 26 people and indicted 18 for trading in ivory and rhino horns as part of a national criminal investigation into the wildlife black market known as Operation Crash. Furthermore, agents have destroyed smuggling rackets trading in gallbladders and paws from Asian black bears and the critically endangered totoaba. Court documents and other records indicated that the smuggling syndicates are comprised of American auction and antique dealers, Irish mobsters, people with connections to drug cartels in Mexico and South America, safari operators from South Africa, and traders from China and Japan. Law enforcement agents indicated that they lack the resources to fully police the illegal wildlife trade. In addition, fines for such activities are low, and loopholes in the law still permit trade in some items like ivory. This shows that most traffickers of endangered wildlife have little to fear of authorities. Officials further added that smugglers bring in products primarily through ports in Los Angeles and New York and the wildlife trade takes place in antique stores and auction houses across the U.S, self storage facilities in places such as the Bronx and Chelsea in New York, and the Internet.
Confiscated wildlife products at JFK Airport

It is a tremendous step that the Obama Administration has taken to reveal a plan to tackle the illegal wildlife trade on both national and international levels. However, there are several obstacles in the way that make this task difficult to accomplish. For example, law enforcement officials lack essential resources, fines are low, and the law has several loopholes that enable the operators of such illicit activities to continue their work with impunity. This was especially seen in the case of an investigation of merchants in Los Angeles and San Francisco last year by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) revealed that 90 percent of ivory sold might be illegal under federal law. The investigators indicated that several items seemed to have been aged chemically or physically damaged to look at least 100 years old or older. This indicates that the operators specializing in trading illegal ivory manipulate the federal law that allows selling of ivory in the U.S if it is a century old. Kenya-based wildlife investigator Daniel Stiles added that several such pieces originate from factories in China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Nigeria where crude ivory is extracted from poached elephants and changed to look older. It is absolutely essential to target these factories and detain the workers along with the poachers, so that illegal ivory does not make its way into the U.S or other parts of the world to be sold in auctions or even stores. Furthermore, corruption is an ever-growing problem in countries like Nigeria, the DRC, China, and others where the illegal wildlife trade and poaching virtually operate with impunity. There is a major need to put pressure on such countries infamous for corruption to improvise their laws against wildlife crimes and change their perspectives towards criminal activities directed at endangered species. One possibility would be to convey a message to corrupt countries that if they do not properly put a stop to poaching and other wildlife crimes on their soil, then U.S and other developed countries will not provide them with financial assistance. African countries, in general, are known to rely on tourism for the benefit of their individual economies and socio-economic development. However, at the same time, they are consistently being targeted by poachers and despite their efforts consisting of increased security and strict laws against wildlife crimes, poachers are able to get away easily due to bribery and corruption. This allows poachers and wildlife traffickers to continue conducting their illegal activities and wreak havoc on the wildlife that foreign and domestic tourists pay large amounts of money to observe. This has contributed to the downfall of Africa's elephant and rhino populations in the past years. A report from Colorado State University showed that more than 100,000 elephants have been massacred since 2010. The global threat of poaching and the illegal wildlife trade is linked to organized criminal syndicates and terrorist organizations such as Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda, Boko HaramJanjaweed, and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) who profit from wildlife crimes to conduct their crimes against humanity. Therefore, efforts to deal a fatal blow on poaching and wildlife trafficking should be a key element in the war against terrorism and organized crime. The congress is also attempting to address wildlife smuggling with Senators Dianne Feinstein and Lindsey Graham having presented a bill that would bolster fines for smuggling in wildlife and enable law enforcement officials to seize the smugglers' resources. While this bill is still pending, it is extremely crucial that it must pass as a first step in bringing change to the whole scenario in which punishments against wildlife crimes are too low and not much of a deterrent. Poaching and the illegal wildlife trade are linked to organized criminal syndicates and terrorist organizations which claim lives of countless civilians. It is absolutely essential to put a stop to these crimes against nature in order to combat crimes against humanity.

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