WASHINGTON — A U.S. push to save the African elephant and rhinoceros from being wiped out by a wave of poaching comes down to this: an executive order by President Barack Obama, an advisory panel, a task force and $10 million added to the pot of federal money earmarked to train wildlife police and fight poverty.
The effort is being helped by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who recently unveiled a three-year, $80 million joint effort with nonprofit groups and African nations to end elephant poaching, including setting up new wildlife parks.
But the anti-poaching endeavors are being measured against the grinding poverty that drives Africans to risk their lives to kill elephants and rhinos for their ivory and horns, some wildlife conservationists say.
An international panel that governs wildlife trading said that illegal trafficking has at least doubled since 2007, even though it banned the sale of ivory and horns years ago. That panel, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), has made little headway in lowering the demand for the artifacts on the black market, which thrives in Asia, where ornately carved tusks are coveted and some still believe that a sprinkle of rhino horn helps fight cancer.
Although conservationists view the new U.S. action as not going far enough, they welcomed it as a step forward.
“We are getting to the point of no return,” said Richard Ruggiero, a former non-government conservationist who is now the Africa branch chief of Fish and Wildlife's Division of International Conservation.
“We lacked political will in the U.S., overseas and in consumer nations such as China,” he said. “Without political will, there's nothing.”
Adding to the pressure to act is growing evidence that terrorist groups have entered the black market, paying poachers to kill the animals and selling their horns and ivory at a premium to middlemen in the United States and Asia to fund operations such as the deadly Sept. 21 attack on a Kenyan shopping mall by the Somali group al-Shabab, a wing of al Qaida.
The nonprofit Elephant Action League (EAL) claimed that it “found very concrete connections . . . to al-Shabab” and poaching in a two-year investigation that ended this year, executive director Andrea Crosta said.
Between one and three tons of ivory, worth $200,000 to $600,000, entered Somalia each month through al-Shabab, according to the EAL. It disappeared in the dark hulls of ships and airplanes bound for points worldwide.
“We managed to interview dozens of people and all implicated them,” Crosta said. “We met poachers, traffickers, big traders, businessmen, ex-Somali warlords. Slowly we began a puzzle, piece by piece. We feel quite comfortable regarding our specific investigation.”
Although the EAL claims to have funded excursions to extract information and relied on Somalis with close contacts in the terrorist network, the report containing anonymous sources is not fully trusted, even among fellow conservationists.
But it says there's enough evidence to show that the connection between poaching and terror groups is real. Last year, ivory was found by Congolese police who raided a camp of the insurgent Lord's Resistance Army, which uses children as soldiers.
Obama's executive order, issued in July, called for the Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, which was formed in September. The council will advise the new Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking in its efforts to influence governments to enact new laws for stronger policing and investigations of poachers and traffickers. It will seek to make citizens aware of how their cultural tastes are fueling a massacre.
The key to reducing poaching is reducing the poverty that motivates Africans to do the dirty work of buyers, say conservation groups, which post shocking photographs of elephants and rhinos that have had their faces ripped off for their tusks and horns.
“Thousands of people are willing to risk their lives to kill an elephant,” Crosta said. As early as March, 150 of them had been killed in South Africa alone. “It's such easy money for them,” he said.
James Deutsch, executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Africa Program, said that “fighting poverty has to be a key part of the long-term solution to this problem.” He noted that the WCS is promoting agricultural development programs in Zambia and ecotourism in Congo and Gabon starring the elephants.
As part of Obama's directive, South Africa and Kenya, where large numbers of the animals have been wiped out, will get $3 million each for training and technical assistance. The remainder will be distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
The White House has vowed to stage a world challenge through the U.S. Agency for International Development, in which competing teams will create wildlife technology to analyze animal DNA and track the mobile phones of criminals.
To alleviate poverty, the U.S. and its partners want to funnel more money into African wildlife tourism to create jobs, farming assistance to provide families with food and money, as well as other measures that will lessen the appeal of the wages that middlemen pay to kill animals.
A record 668 rhinos were slaughtered for their horns in South Africa alone last year, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Two-thirds of elephants in Gabon's Minkebe National Park — about 11,000 — have been slaughtered since 2004, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Governments must stage an immediate crackdown on people who invest in slaughter, and the United States has an obligation to lead, Deutsch said.
The United States is one of the largest markets for illegal ivory, where the Justice Department prosecutes traffickers and buyers using a police network known as Operation Crash.
Officials estimate that only 10 percent of illegal horn and ivory is seized in the illegal global market, which is worth tens of billions of dollars. Police action in the United States helps blunt criticism in parts of the world where U.S. demands for stronger policing is considered a hypocrisy.
Fish and Wildlife officials have called on other nations to destroy stockpiles of ivory that some want to sell legally to raise cash. It hoped to set an example by crushing its entire stockpile of seized ivory in Colorado for the first time, but the move was postponed by the government shutdown.
Court records show that criminals often use the legal market to cloak the larger illegal trade.
“To stop demand, the first step is to end all sales of ivory within the United States,” Deutsch said. “The U.S. is an important consumer of illegal ivory, and we need to put our own house in order if we are going to ask Asian and African countries to do the same.”