This Tuesday, the United States Institute of Peace hosted a bipartisan congressional dialogue featuring Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee. The dialogue focused on addressing the key steps and challenges in tackling illegal wildlife poaching and trafficking. The dialogue also highlighted that this illicit trade is a source of terrorist funding.

Valued at $7 to $23 billion, illegal wildlife trafficking is among the largest and most lucrative criminal activities worldwide. For example, while conservation efforts have driven down the price of ivory in the past few years, recent investigations have reported that elephant tusks are still valued at $730 per kilogram and rhino horns at a whopping $9,000 per pound. The steep price of ivory and other illegal wildlife products attracts criminal organizations seeking to fund their other activities.

New Approaches to Tackling the Illicit Wildlife Trade

Recognizing the linkage to terrorist organizations

A 2012 report by the Elephant Action League finds that illegal wildlife trafficking plays into the funding of terrorist organizations; in fact, al-Shabab receives about 40 percent of its funding from the illegal ivory trade. The UN has also reported ivory to be the preferred conflict resource of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Given the illegal wildlife trade’s connection terrorist organizations, it can also be seen as a driver of conflict, crime, and destabilization of communities. Rep. Royce stated that the trade also increases the “firepower” of organizations such as al-Shabab. 

Sen. Chris Coons expanded on Rep. Royce’s point by stating that to tackle wildlife trafficking and poaching, we must acknowledge its linkage to terrorist organizations. Sen. Coons stated: “we have made dramatic progress in terms of conservation, conservation systems, wildlife protection and improving rule of law across a number of years, but in the last decade it has sharply reversed, and that is partly due to an increase in firepower.” Sen. Coons continued by comparing the illegal wildlife trade to the drugs and arms trade in the United States, and the widespread, corrosive effect it has on our communities.

The role of whistleblowers in combating illegal wildlife trafficking 

One strategy that could be effective in addressing illegal wildlife trafficking and poaching is the activation of wildlife whistleblowers. Whistleblower provisions under many laws, including the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act, incentivize whistleblowers to report crimes by providing them with monetary rewards pursuing a successful prosecution. The underground nature of wildlife trafficking also makes stopping this type of crime nearly impossible without insider information.

Involving the community

One of the recent changes in strategy Sen. Coons and Rep. Royce discussed is the important role that local communities play in wildlife conservation. Sen. Coons stated that “engaging human communities around dedicated parks so that they see benefits to them and their children” has been key to showing the value of wildlife to communities.

Forming international, public-private partnerships

Another important strategy addressed by Rep. Royce and Sen. Coons was forming partnerships with domestic and foreign NGOs, governments, and private corporations. Rep. Royce cited past efforts undertaken by the U.S. in implementing satellite technology that helped park rangers track poachers. Other strategies mentioned were increasing our understanding of how illegal wildlife products are gathered and then connected to transnational criminal networks; working with governments and NGOs to strengthen local laws and prosecutions where the poaching occurs; and continuing to decrease the demand for illegal wildlife products by making it less profitable for the transnational criminal organizations.

Next steps?

The damages incurred by poaching and wildlife trafficking extend far beyond decreased biodiversity. It also has the injurious impact of empowering terrorist organizations and endangering human security. Given the complexity of the issue, a comprehensive conservation strategy and multi-pronged approach must be utilized to fight illegal wildlife trafficking.

Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblower Center, stated: “we applaud the discussion by Representative Royce and Senator Coons and believe that supporting whistleblowers is crucial in fighting this issue.”

Whistleblowing can also hold even greater potential in curbing wildlife trafficking if the Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act of 2018 (H.R. 5697) is passed. H.R. 5697 would make wildlife trafficking a predicate offense under RICO, potentially giving prosecutors and law enforcement an additional tool in going after criminal enterprises.