10 September 2013

Africa: U.S. Gets Tough On Wildlife Trafficking

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Washington — The United States is mobilizing an intensified campaign to stop wildlife trafficking of species threatened by illegal hunting in many regions of the world.

U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the membership of a new federal council September 9 that will better coordinate domestic and international efforts to apprehend and prosecute this criminal activity.

Jewel says illegal hunting and trafficking in wildlife have reached crisis levels among certain species, naming elephants, rhinos, great apes, tigers, sharks, tuna and turtles.

The new advisory council will help direct heightened efforts to protect these creatures. "We will continue to work in partnership with countries where these animals live and roam and other nations," Jewell said, "to shut down the illegal trade in wildlife products and to bring poachers and traffickers to justice."

Representatives of nongovernmental conservation organizations make up about half the council's membership, including the Wildlife Conservation Society's president and chief executive, Cristián Samper.

"African elephants alone are being lost at an unprecedented rate, and the demand for ivory shows no decline," Samper said in a Wildlife Conservation Society press release. "Approximately 35,000 elephants were killed by poachers last year -- some 96 animals each day."

As part of the effort, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is increasing its training of game officers, customs officials and police across Africa, Latin America and Asia. U.S. agencies, in partnership with concerned nonprofit organizations, will also be providing equipment and technical support to increase the capability of range countries to combat trafficking and poaching within their borders.

Participants in the new drive to protect diminishing species gathered at a White House event September 9. Fish and Wildlife Service director Daniel Ashe said the United States must be part of the solution to this problem, even though the illegal hunting of these animals goes on far away.

"The species and habitats of our planet support billions of people and drive the world's economy," Ashe said. "We all have a stake in ensuring their survival."

Ashe said U.S. markets and consumers are part of the supply chain for these illegal products, which can end up in U.S. shops or pass through U.S. ports.

JUSTICE DEPARTMENT PROSECUTES CASES

The U.S. Department of Justice is also a player in this heightened campaign against wildlife trafficking. The department issued a September 9 fact sheet detailing some of the cases it has prosecuted in the United States. "Operation Crash" is an ongoing effort to shut down the illegal slaughter of rhinoceros and the trafficking of their horns.

For example, the Justice Department prosecuted a California case involving trafficking in rhinoceros horn and associated charges of conspiracy, smuggling, money laundering and tax fraud. The defendants pleaded guilty and will serve sentences up to three and a half years and pay more than $100,000 in fines and back taxes.

The Justice Department is also helping law enforcement agencies trying to combat this problem in other nations, helping to train investigators, prosecutors and judges, "resulting in more proactive international law enforcement operations," according to the fact sheet.

In another case, a Puerto Rican company, GEM Manufacturing LLC, pleaded guilty after U.S. investigators found the company was involved in the illegal import of rare, protected black coral for use in jewelry and decorative objects. The company agreed to pay a criminal fine of $1.8 million and make community service payments of $500,000. GEM also forfeited more than $1 million in products.

The anti-trafficking campaign stems from an executive order signed by President Obama in July. It created the special council to direct the campaign. The council includes the secretaries of state and the interior and the attorney general.

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