Illegal Wildlife Trafficking & the U.S.-Africa Summit

More than forty heads of state from African nations will be in Washington during the week of August 4th for a U.S.-Africa Summit meeting with President Obama and affiliated meetings with the U.S.-Africa Business Forum. The agenda is packed. Africa’s resource-rich, emerging economies are increasingly important to the U.S., China, and other major economic powers. At the same time, many African governments and institutions have a tenuous grip on authority, opening the door to civil unrest (including, in some cases, terrorist groups) and an inability to provide opportunities for their needy citizens. There is much to discuss.

There is one item on the Summit’s agenda that will surprise those who have not been closely following developments in Africa: illegal wildlife trafficking. While Africa’s iconic wildlife always have been recognized as important to the tourist economy, and as an indelible part of the African mystique, wildlife issues typically are far down the list of important issues for Africa, behind more centrally important issues such as political stability, economic development, and health.

For this U.S.-Africa Summit, however, wildlife issues have shouldered their way into the conversation – and for good reason: massive illegal killings are on the verge of wiping out some of Africa’s most important wildlife populations. World-wide demand for ivory and rhino horn, for example — fueled by consumer demand for a non-essential luxury item (in the case of ivory) or a fraudulent wonder drug (in the case of ivory horn) — are devastating elephant and rhino populations. Preliminary information indicates that at least 20,000 elephants were killed for their ivory in Africa in 2013, following the killing of an estimated 35,000 elephants in 2012 – against an estimated total population of fewer than 500,000 elephants.   Likewise, more than 1,000 rhinos were killed for their horns last year, against a base of some 22,000 rhinos, continent-wide. Meanwhile, global collectors and exhibitors willing to pay huge premiums for live exotic animals are wrecking havoc with great ape and chimpanzee populations. The list of imperiled wildlife is long, and getting longer.

The devastation is cause enough for alarm. But the illegal trafficking is causing double trouble: behind the local villagers who carry out the killings lie sophisticated criminal syndicates that are reaping billions of dollars in illegal profits, fueling instability and corruption in African and Asian nations, and helping arm militias and terrorist groups. The international criminal menace – which has expanded its trafficking activities beyond drugs, arms and human trafficking into the newly-lucrative illegal wildlife trade – poses a direct threat to stability and order in important emerging economies and U.S. trading partners in Africa and Asia.

There is no shortage of suggestions and recommendations about what can be done to stem the bloody tide of killings and the massive corruption and lawlessness that accompany the illegal international trade in wildlife and wildlife parts. Rather than chasing after dozens of proposed action items, however, a more effective approach would be to focus on the five essential steps that can shut down international wildlife trafficking. They are:

The test will be whether U.S. authorities embrace these five key ingredients for success, and lead the international community toward their implementation. Secretary Kerry’s meeting with Chinese leaders on this subject last month was an excellent start. Now, with the upcoming U.S.-Africa Summit, the President has a golden opportunity to challenge African leaders to take back their continent and insist that the entire international community join with them and beat back the wildlife trafficking scourge.


Over the past two years, the world has begun to awaken to the double threat posed by illegal wildlife traffickers: (1) the cruel killings of tens of thousands of Africa’s most iconic animals and the growing tragedy triggered by the mass killings, including the fraying of Africa’s deep cultural, environmental and economic linkage and shared identity with its wildlife; and (2) the corrosive influence that massive illegal wildlife trafficking is having on important U.S. interests in Africa and Asia, spawned by the traffickers’ unholy alliances with militias, terrorist groups and corrupt officials.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drew attention to these emerging threats in an important State Department address in November 2012. She triggered the U.S. intelligence agencies’ analysis and subsequent confirmation of the ties between the criminal syndicates involved in wildlife trafficking and their connection with militia and terrorist groups. Simultaneously, officials in the U.S. Department of the Interior — which oversees African wildlife programs through its Fish & Wildlife Service and is the U.S. lead in implementing the international convention that restricts trade in endangered species (CITES) – helped to sound the alarm within the Administration.

The President recognized the seriousness of the issue and took the opportunity of his visit to Africa last July to issue Executive Order 13648 on Combating Wildlife Trafficking. Section 1 of the President’s Order speaks clearly and strongly to the threat that the international wildlife trafficking scourge poses to U.S. interests. It states:

“The poaching of protected species and the illegal trade in wildlife and their derivative parts and products (together know as “wildlife trafficking”) represent an international crisis that continues to escalate. Poaching operations have expanded beyond small-scale, opportunistic actions to coordinated slaughter commissioned by armed and organized criminal syndicates. The survival of protected wildlife species such as elephants, rhinos, great apes, tigers, sharks, tuna and turtles has beneficial economic, social and environmental impacts that are important to all nations. Wildlife trafficking reduces those benefits while generating billions of dollars in illicit revenues each year, contributing to the illegal economy, fueling instability, and undermining security. Also, the prevention of trafficking of live animals helps us control the spread of emerging infectious diseases. For these reasons, it is in the national interest of the United States to combat wildlife trafficking.” (Emphasis added.)

The President took several concrete steps in his Executive Order to give teeth to his policy pronouncement, including: (1) the formation of a cabinet-level Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking (Task Force) – chaired by Secretaries Kerry and Jewell and Attorney General Holder; (2) a directive that the Task Force develop and then implement a National Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking; and (3) the formation of an Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking to assist the Administration in developing and implementing the National Strategy. The President’s Executive Order also directed the Task Force to explore how best to fold wildlife trafficking into the Administration’s previously-announced initiative on “Transnational Organized Crime.”

The Task Force and Advisory Council heeded the President’s call and, on February 11, 2014, the White House released the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. The National Strategy lays out an ambitious agenda, identifying 3 strategic priorities to guide the U.S. response to the global wildlife trafficking crisis: (1) Strengthen Enforcement; (2) Reduce Demand for Illegally Traded Wildlife; and (3) Expand International Cooperation and Commitment. The National Strategy then builds out 24 key implementation areas under the three strategic priorities. Adding to the mix, the Advisory Council took action on June 9, 2014 and formally endorsed 19 specific recommendations to implement the National Strategy and move forward with a comprehensive, multi-front war on wildlife traffickers.

While the proliferation of strategies and implementation steps is welcome, the large number of action items has the potential to obscure the most important elements of a successful anti-trafficking effort. As noted above, there are five key ingredients to achieving success against illegal wildlife traffickers. Each of these essential elements is described more fully below.

Reinforce the Ban on Commercial Trade in Ivory and Rhino Horn in the U.S., and Globally

In 1989, the world community responded to a previous surge in elephant killings in Africa by uplisting elephants to Appendix I status under the CITES convention and banning commercial imports and exports of ivory. This followed an earlier ban on commercial import and export of rhino horn.

The 1989 ban had a dramatic impact. Ivory markets in the U.S. and Europe collapsed. With the ban in place, poaching rates declined precipitously and elephant populations in Africa stabilized at around 600,000 (down from a peak of 1.2 to 1.3 million elephants in the late 1970s). Elephant populations then remained relatively healthy for nearly 20 years – with greatly reduced ivory-related killings – until poaching rates began to escalate rapidly again around 2008, accelerating to today’s massive levels of killings, which are threatening the continued existence of elephants and rhinos in the African wild.

A number of factors have come together since 2008 to trigger the spiking in elephant and rhino killings. Two of the most important factors revolve around erosion of the 1989 ban on commercial trade in ivory and an earlier ban on trade in rhino horn. The most striking undermining of the ivory ban occurred in 1999 and again in 2008, when CITES allowed sales of national stocks of ivory in the hope that adding more legal ivory into the market on a tightly regulated basis would moderate demand, bring down prices, and demonstrate that a regulated ivory market could be successful.

The experiment was a disaster. The introduction of new, legal ivory undermined the world-wide ban on commercial trade in ivory and provided cover for illegal syndicates, just as they were gearing up to feed new demand in illegal ivory. Efforts to track and regulate the legal ivory that entered the marketplace in 1999 and again in 2008 failed spectacularly, with China, at one point, being unable to account for more than 120 tons of the ivory that it had purchased.

In addition, the weakening of the ban on ivory and rhino horn trade unfortunately coincided with the rapid rise of a newly wealthy middle and upper class in Asia which has fueled increased demand for ivory. The potential market is huge, and the run-up in the price in ivory with no apparent slowing of demand, indicate that demand for ivory is inelastic. So long as ivory is available for sale and viewed as an acceptable purchase, the voracious market will continue to incentivize criminal syndicates to kill elephants for their ivory in record numbers – threatening the viability of the species in Africa.

These developments have led experts to agree that elephant killings will continue at a high rates unless the U.S. and other nations double down on the 1989 ban on commercial trade while, at the same time, launching a sophisticated demand reduction strategy. Parties to the CITES convention are taking steps in this direction, demanding that a number of nations that have clearly been violating the 1989 ban – including China, Vietnam, Kenya and Tanzania, among others – develop action plans to clamp down on illegal transport and sale of ivory and rhino horn. CITES’ Standing Committee will be reviewing those plans this summer for their sufficiency.

Here in the United States, the initial success of the 1989 ban on commercial ivory sales also has eroded over time. While early messaging of the ban prompted many retailers to get out of the ivory business, loopholes and exceptions in U.S. law, along with lax enforcement, allowed some commercial trade to continue. The Administration recognized that U.S. leadership in stopping the dramatic increase in wildlife killings depends, in part, on tightening up our own administration of the ban on commercial trade in ivory and rhino horn. That is why the White House combined the release of the National Strategy with an announcement that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) would take administrative actions to more fully implement the 1989 ban on commercial trade in ivory, including confirming existing restrictions in the law on trade in ivory and rhino horn, and taking steps to ensure that sellers of “antique” ivory (defined under existing law as being more than 100 years old) satisfy their burden of proof, as required by the Endangered Species Act.

The initial steps taken by FWS to close loopholes and require stricter adherence to the international ban on trade in ivory have not gone smoothly. FWS has yet to develop simple procedures to facilitate “imports” and “exports” of products that contain ivory when the transit is not associated with commercial trade in ivory such as, for example, international travel by musicians carrying older instruments, such as violin bows, that have ivory parts. And there is anxiety in some quarters that the proof requirements that FWS will be putting in place for “antique” ivory in an upcoming rulemaking will be impossible to satisfy.

In both cases, FWS has been alerted to these legitimate concerns and, hopefully, the Service will address them in a satisfactory way, with a minimum of bureaucracy and without establishing unreasonable and/or unattainable compliance demands. (During the current shake-down period, it may be prudent for FWS to provide a grace period during which the kinks are worked out, without exposing well-intentioned individuals to enforcement risk.)

That said, there is no question that reaffirmation of the global ban on commercial trade in ivory and rhino horn products is an essential ingredient to a successful international anti-trafficking effort. The hammer needs to come down on illegal traffickers. An all-out diplomatic and enforcement effort can and must accompany the reinvigorated ban on commercial trade, making effective use of all available tools, including public diplomacy with key nations, incorporation of wildlife trafficking provisions in trade agreements, and bringing sanctions against non-conforming nations through international mechanisms (e.g., CITES) or under U.S. law (e.g., the Pelly Amendment, which authorizes the President to impose trade sanctions against other countries that are not adhering to internationally agreed-upon wildlife protections). All of these steps will reinforce clear and unequivocal messaging to consumers and enforcers alike: trafficking in ivory and rhino horn is illegal and it will not be tolerated.

Recruit U.S. And Global Businesses To Join The Fight

The President’s Executive Order and the National Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking both emphasize that attacking and beating the wildlife trafficking scourge will require the cooperation of all elements of society, including businesses and NGOs. One promising public-private partnership would have the White House enlisting exporters, shippers, and retail businesses — which operate in the same sphere as illegal traffickers — to join the fight by voluntarily adopting business practices that would make it virtually impossible for traffickers to use their export, transit, or sales platforms to traffic in illegal wildlife products.

One company, eBay, already has shown the way in this regard by prohibiting ivory sales from its internet trading platform. Other sellers, including high end retailers, internet seach engines, auction houses, and export and transit companies, such as airlines and shipping companies, can do the same.

Moving ahead with this public-private partnership would have multiple benefits. First and foremost, traffickers’ options for transporting and selling illegal wildlife products would be reduced. In addition, however, by communicating with their customers and explaining the steps that they are taking to ensure that they are not inadvertently aiding wildlife traffickers, companies in the export, transit and retail sectors will be raising awareness of illegal trafficking activities, identifying potential weak points in illegal traffickers’ supply chains, and reinforcing the inappropriateness of purchasing ivory or rhino horn products.

Significant Resources Must be Devoted Toward Demand Reduction Efforts

Many assume that if poachers are stopped at the outset with firepower and effective enforcement, the ivory trafficking cycle will be broken, with middlemen having no ivory to move from range to consumer countries, and consumers having no ivory to buy. While it is true that a 100% effective enforcement strategy would yield this result, the reality is that wildlife trafficking causation moves in the other direction: consumers want to buy ivory, and criminal syndicates are motivated to establish networks of poachers who will kill as many animals as needed to meet demand.

History suggests, therefore, that as long as consumers are interesting in buying high-priced ivory and rhino horn, traffickers and poachers will continue trying to find ways to deliver the goods, even in the face of escalating anti-poaching efforts. The National Strategy document recognizes this reality, noting that “[c]riminals will continue to kill wildlife and traffic in contraband as long as the potential profits remain so high.” Indeed, the document acknowledges that “increasing antipoaching and antitrafficking enforcement efforts will have only limited effect unless we work simultaneously to address the persistent market demand that drives this trade.”

Given these realities, it is essential that significant resources be devoted to demand reduction efforts. Recent success in reducing consumption of shark fin in China has shown that sophisticated public campaigns led by effective spokespersons – such as the Chinese basketball star Yo Ming in the case of the shark fin soup campaign — can change consumer behavior. The messaging and messengers will vary from country to country, taking into account cultural tendencies and sensitivities, but the goal in each would be the same: to reduce consumer demand for ivory and rhino horn.

Build African Capacity To Fight Illegal Traffickers

While international efforts at restoring the ban on international trade in ivory and rhino horn, and reducing demand in consuming nations, are two of the key elements of a successful anti-trafficking strategy, it also is clear that when African nations are willing to fight poaching on their home turf, the United States and other nations should be ready to provide assistance. Help can come in many forms, including providing needed equipment and training to take on increasingly-sophisticated and well-armed poachers. Indeed, given the connections between the criminal syndicates that are involved in wildlife trafficking and armed militias and terrorist groups, the U.S. military should get in the act by providing equipment and training to requesting nations. No one should pretend that the wildlife trafficking fight does not have direct and serious security ramifications for the United States.

In addition to providing direct help in stopping poachers who are operating in country, the international community can help to blunt illegal traffickers by supporting conservation programs that give local communities an economic stake in the continued vitality of their wildlife by sharing tourist revenues and the like. Also, in much the same way that investments should be made in demand reduction strategies that discourage ivory and rhino horn purchases in consuming countries, similar investments should be made in having African voices describe the the corrupting influence that illegal trafficking is having in their nations, and the devastating impacts that poachers are having on one of their most important economic and cultural assets — their world-class wildlife resources.

On that note, it is important to emphasize that criminal trafficking syndicates have been successful in corrupting authorities in some African nations – from the local rangers who are tasked with spotting poachers, to the high-level officials who control staffing, budget and enforcement priorities for their governments. The grim reality is that resources directed to governmental anti-poaching efforts may be compromised by corrupt officials. For that reason, a corruption “screen” should be applied against requests to fund programs in African nations in which corruption has taken hold.

Two additional keys for building African capacity to fight illegal traffickers include reliance on U.S. ambassadors and their missions in Africa – such as Ambassadors Mark Childress and Patrick Gaspard in Tanzania and South Africa, respectively — to direct support where it can do the most good. Secondly, reliable information on wildlife populations and anti-trafficking activities should be collected and validated through a well-respected African university or other independent institution. This type of information “hub” could ensure that new information-gathering efforts across Africa (such as the continent-wide elephant census that is now getting underway) proceed in a timely and transparent manner, in accordance with scientifically sound protocols, and with results posted as soon as possible on its credible, third party site. The Center also could provide a central clearinghouse for information developed by other parties (such as the CITES Secretariat and cooperating entities) and generate searchable databases on other important topics, such as notable attacks on wildlife, prosecutions and convictions, legal and policy reforms, important meetings, and the like.

Strike Hard At Transnational Organized Crime and Terrorist Connections

Finally, the Administration should direct all of the cross-agency infrastructure and resources that it has developed under its Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) program – originally launched in 2011 — toward the criminal syndicates that are participating in the multi-billion dollar illegal wildlife trafficking industry. For example, tools that have been developed to track illegal assets associated with arms, drugs and human trafficking, including foreign corrupt officials, should also be used to fight wildlife trafficking syndicates.

Similarly, the Interagency Threat Mitigation Working Group, which identifies TOC networks that present high national security risks; the Director of National Intelligence’s Open Source Center, which draws on “grey” literature, smaller press outlets that cover crime in foreign countries, and social media to develop profiles of individuals, companies and institutions linked to TOC networks; and the Transnational Organized Crime Rewards program, which Secretary Kerry already has used to help bring a Laotian criminal enterprise to justice, should all be used in the fight against wildlife traffickers.


The United States must tackle the wildlife trafficking crisis that is devastating elephant and rhino populations, while threatening other wildlife species and fueling insecurity and corruption throughout Africa and Asia. The President has kicked off an Administration-wide initiative that, if African and other world leaders embrace it, can break the back of the criminal syndicates that lie behind the slaughter in Africa’s forests and savannas. Let’s hope that the U.S.-Africa Summit advances the effort and provides more than lip service to this unfolding tragedy.

David J. Hayes is a Distinguished Visiting Lecturer in Law at Stanford Law School. He is Vice-Chair of the President’s Wildlife Trafficking Advisory Council and served as the Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior from 2009 to 2013. This essay has been adapted from a public lecture that Mr. Hayes delivered at Stanford University on May 29, 2014. The author extends his thanks to the Stanford students that helped to develop the factual underpinning of recommendations that are included in this essay.