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U.S. Steps Up Campaign Against Illegal Wildlife Trade
February 27, 2014

Stuffed animals on display
These wildlife trophies are displayed after their seizure in Indonesia in Operation Cobra 2.

By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
26 February 2014

U.S. experts in investigations of wildlife trafficking and enforcement of trafficking laws are about to begin duty in Bangkok and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, marking a step forward in implementing the Obama administration’s recently announced National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Director Dan Ashe told the House Foreign Affairs Committee February 26 that overseas deployment of enforcement officers further demonstrates U.S. commitment to help other governments preserve rare animals. With congressional and State Department support, Ashe said, his service hopes to have two agents in Asia, two in Africa and one in Latin America by the end of 2014.

Organized criminal and terrorist organizations have rapidly increased slaughter of animals such as elephants and rhinoceros in response to soaring black market prices for animal horns and other parts valued in some cultures. Wildlife trafficking now looms as an international security threat because of the amount of money involved and the assets that criminal networks are able to acquire.

Long-term assignment of U.S. agents to work with counterparts overseas is a recent development, but USFWS has a long-standing involvement in programs to strengthen law enforcement protection for unique resources of the natural world.

“We continue to support the international law enforcement academies in Gaborone, Botswana, and Bangkok, Thailand, which have trained 350 law enforcement officers in wildlife crime investigations since 2002,” said Ashe.

USFWS, the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and international partner governments completed an intense trafficking investigation in January. Agents from Africa, Southeast Asia and China jointly participated in Operation Cobra 2, Ashe said, resulting in “more than 400 arrests of wildlife criminals and 350 major wildlife seizures across Africa and Asia.”

Operation Cobra 2 is not a one-time operation. It is part of ongoing U.S. support to help regional governments develop greater capabilities to attack trafficking crimes, which occur across national boundaries, disregarded by roving animals and the criminal gangs attempting to slaughter them.

Ashe is a co-chair of a cross-government task force, which delivered the trafficking strategy details in mid-February. Ashe shares the position with counterparts from the U.S. State Department and the Justice Department, who also appeared before the committee February 26.

The committee chairman, Representative Ed Royce (Republican from California), welcomed news of the overseas assignment of the USFWS officers and pledged to support ongoing congressional funding to stop what he called “alarming, unprecedented slaughter.”

Royce said the battle to contain the rapidly growing destruction of many species is at “a pivotal moment.” The prices have risen so dramatically in a short time that developing-world law enforcement agencies are becoming “outgunned,” Royce said, by poachers with enough money to “buy helicopters, high-powered weapons and night vision goggles.”

Another means that Congress may provide to combat wildlife trafficking is to broaden legal instruments that prosecutors can use to take traffickers to trial and seize their assets.

Justice Department acting Assistant Attorney General for Environment and Natural Resources Robert Dreher said the national strategy urges congressional action to designate wildlife trafficking as a “predicate offense,” which would make profits earned from this criminal activity subject to money laundering laws.

“This legislative change would help take the profit out of the illegal wildlife trade and end the days of wildlife trafficking being a low-risk, high-profit crime,” Dreher said.

The third co-chair of the national strategy, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Kerri-Ann Jones, said the Obama administration’s new strategy focuses on three key goals:

• To strengthen domestic and global enforcement of laws and regulations protecting wildlife.

• To reduce the demand for products derived from illegally seized wildlife, thus minimizing the profits they bring on today’s black market.

• To build international cooperation and public-private partnerships to combat poaching, trafficking and trade.

The Obama administration rolled out the strategy at the same time it announced across-the-board restrictions on U.S. trade in new ivory products and extremely limited trade internationally. This legal market has provided camouflage for the illegal market, experts say. Elimination of trade at this level puts the United States in a leadership position to attack the practice worldwide.