Africa: U.S. Official Flags Poaching As Security Threat

A stockpile of ivory seized from elephant poachers and illegal ivory dealers is burned in Libreville, Gabon.
21 February 2013

The number of elephants alive today is the smallest number ever recorded. A new surge of slaughter is, according to wildlife experts, worse than the mass killings of the 1970s and 80s, before an international effort to curb the killings, ban ivory sales and enforce anti-poaching laws enabled the elephant population to rebound.

Consumer demand for ivory and rhino horn and international criminal conspiracies to obtain and trade them have led to sophisticated attacks on elephants and rhinos.

An early March meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species will consider new proposals to ban ivory sales and other measures to protect large animals from extinction. 'Battle for the Elephants', a National Geographic documentary paralleling an article, 'Blood Ivory' by author Bryan Christy in the magazine last October, will air on the U.S. Public Broadcasting Network on 28 February. The magazine's "A Voice for Elephants" blog tracks the issue.

Robert D. Hormats, U.S. Under Secretary of State for economic growth, energy and the environment spent about a year in east Africa as a graduate student on a program called Operation Crossroads Africa. He has returned to Africa frequently, including an August trip to Namibia and Botswana, as well as South Africa, where he joined then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In November, the secretary hosted an event on wildlife trafficking at the State Department in Washington, D.C.

Earlier, Hormats sat down for an interview with AllAfrica. Excerpts:

How did the issue of poaching get elevated to the level of Under Secretary at the Department of State?

Secretary Clinton and I spent a large amount of time together in South Africa. During that trip, I had another opportunity to discuss the issue of wildlife, particularly the dramatically increased poaching, killing, destruction of huge amounts of wildlife: rhinos in southern Africa; elephants in southern Africa; elephants in Central Africa, including Gabon; a huge slaughter in Cameroon. She has been very actively involved in urging more progress on this issue.

These are not individuals killing animals. This is very organized criminal gangs. The amounts of money involved are increasing. The animals slaughtered are increasing. The threats to stability in parts of this continent are increasing, because these [criminals] pay off people or kill people. They kill a lot of forest rangers or game rangers in various parts of Africa. It has become an epidemic of crime, of destruction, of killing.

So is ivory a new 'conflict resource'?

Yes. It is certainly a product that is extracted from Africa as a result of killing Africa's patrimony by wantonly slaughtering immorally large numbers of its elephants, its rhinos. And there are other animals being killed too. These happen to be the ones that are being killed in the largest numbers.

I have been working with our colleagues to develop a strategy that engages the State Department but other agencies as well, like the Fish and Wildlife Agency, the Justice Department, the military and others - all of them together to deal with this horrible problem.

Our goal here is several fold: to increase awareness of the severity of the problem; to train forest rangers and game wardens in these countries with respect to how to protect themselves; to work with governments - and to organize cooperation among various regional governments, which is important because these animals cross borders and governments need to work together; and trying to work with destination countries to have them tighten up their laws and enforce existing laws better.

And then we are trying also to raise the visibility of this in groups like the Group of 20, the Group of 8, APEC, the East Asian summit.

So it's a multi-phased, multi-layered project. By destination countries, I assume you mean ivory purchasers? Is it accurate that 70% of poached African ivory goes to China?

Well, certainly a large portion. It is hard to determine a number, but it is a very large portion - by far the largest portion. But I want to say, it's not just China. Some of it comes to the United States, some of it comes to Vietnam, some of it comes to other countries in east Asia.

Our goal here is to work with the Chinese to develop a cooperative effort to address this problem.

We want to help the Chinese, Vietnamese and others convey to their people that, for instance, using powdered rhino horn as an anti-cancer drug is worthless. People spend large sums of money on it, believing that it helps to cure cancer. It doesn't. I did a blog with the head of the National Cancer Institute who has won a Nobel prize on cancer. He says quite clearly this has no beneficial effect whatsoever on cancer, or any other disease for that matter.

We are not against traditional Chinese medicine. Aspirin comes from willow bark. There are a lot of things that are very good about traditional Chinese medicine that we in the west could learn from, but rhino horn is not one of them. Tiger parts (from south Asia) are not one of them.

We want to also have people be aware that the very pretty ivory carvings they see in the stores in Beijing or Hanoi, or anywhere else in the world, largely come from elephants that are slaughtered. They don't voluntarily give up their tusks!

So that is the demand side. Would you say more about working with African governments?

We have to do both. If you stop the demand, there wouldn't be large sums of money to provide support for the poachers to get these large volumes of tusks and rhino horns. They can afford helicopters and AK-47s. This is really organized crime. The average person doesn't get access to a helicopter or AK-47s. And it is very destabilizing, because they take over pockets of countries. So we want to stop the demand side as quickly as we can.

On the origination side, we have done and will continue to do several things. We have organized Wildlife Enforcement Networks to get countries to work together. We work with them on how to utilize USAID funds and Fish and Wildlife Funds to develop the capacity to build up their wildlife services, their national park services.

Our embassies have been very active in Cameroon, in Gabon, DRC, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and of course in east Africa, too. In Gaborone, Botswana, we have developed a center where we can work with officials from southern Africa. We have had meetings in Libreville, Gabon, where we have been working with wildlife people from the region.

We have had the head of Africom [the U.S. Africa Command], General Hamm, go to Central Africa and talk to heads of state and ministers. And we have had an active process in the Horn of Africa to address this issue.

We are providing help through our Millennium Challenge Corporation to support national parks and conservancies. One of the reasons I went to Namibia and Botswana is that they have wonderful programs for community conservancies.

You mentioned destabilization from large-scale poaching. Does the United States see wildlife protection as a national security issue?

A huge, huge national security issue. Africans realize it, but I don't think Americans realize it as much. These are criminal elements who are very powerful. They can buy off officials; they kill people; they have power just like drug traders have power in various countries. Wildlife poachers are organized to kill the animals, to move the ivory, to move huge amounts of money - multi-billions of dollars. It is the third biggest illegal trade in the world. Drugs are big, and guns are big, but wildlife is probably third.

Are groups like Al Shabaab in east Africa engaged in the wildlife trade? There have been reports that the Kenyan port of Mombasa handles the group's ivory shipments.

I don't know about Mombasa, but there is anecdotal evidence. It's very hard to get evidence, because this is really a very shady area. But there is certainly evidence that is being accumulated - mostly anecdotal - of links between illegal wildlife trade and terrorist groups. We are trying to get more information on that, frankly. Documented evidence is so hard to get.

Why is that?

Because they have every interest in this being done behind the scenes, in the dark. But like criminal elements around the world, they tend to work together. Moving money, tens of millions of dollars on a regular basis, is something you need skills to do, so there clearly is some measure of cooperation. We don't know how much or who, but we will find out.

Is this a governance issue?

It is a governance issue. I think that virtually all of the states in the region want to curb this traffic and stop it. There is not one government that I have talked to that is not very committed to address this issue. Every one of them regards this as a very serious threat.

They want to stop this, and they want to strengthen their capacity to stop it. We have a lot of techniques and a lot of technology that can help them.

And also we work very closely with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), who are supporting the efforts of governments - the World Wildlife Federation for instance, and Save the Elephants, Save the Cheetahs.

For young, socially concerned Africans, who feel a pan-African identity, is this is a good issue?

A perfect issue. It is, by definition, transnational. These animals don't know borders, they go across borders.

You mention something I think is important, and that is younger people. I think it is very important that people in Africa who are doing Twitter and other social media work together to encourage their governments' efforts. But I think it is also important that we use social media in China and elsewhere to put pressure on their governments to stop [imports] and on people to stop buying ivory, to stop using rhino horn, to stop buying tiger parts.

The hope is that younger people will support and encourage and press their governments to take much tougher action and recognize that this is an urgent situation, this is not something that we have a lot of time to deal with because these animals are threatened, these are all threatened and endangered species. We could see parts of the world where these animals go extinct or dwindle down to very few.

Media reports, including an investigation by the New York Times, suggest that governments may be involved in the illegal ivory trade and the possibility that U.S.-supplied military helicopters may have been used in Uganda. Do you discuss these issues with governments in the region?

Yes we do. We don't have concrete information yet. It is very hard to get information on that area, but we have had conversations with our military and with these governments and made it very clear that there are people writing about this, and we are doing a lot of investigating to figure out if these allegations are true. If they are true, they are very serious.

We do not want American military or training resources to be used to do poaching. If, in fact, they are doing this, than we will take action against them and compel them to stop. The other possibility is these are rogue elements - not part of the organized forces of these countries - that are free lancing. But then their governments should stop them.

I want to emphasize we do not have specific evidence, but serious people have written about it and we are following it up with our military, with their military, and utilizing our embassies.

Are you optimistic about saving wildlife, especially elephants and rhinos?

I am. While it is a problem that is now getting worse rather than better - more animals getting killed, there's a larger volume of trade, so it is a more urgent situation now than it was a couple of years ago - we have also seen positive developments. We have seen enforcement efforts.

We have seen a very active effort by governments. For instance, in Gabon, the president burned a large amount of ivory tusks, which was a very courageous act by him. The deputy president of South Africa is very actively engaged in this. Officials in Namibia and Botswana are deeply committed to protecting their wildlife. And I know Tanzanian President Kikwete is deeply committed.

So I am very encouraged by how much cooperation there is, and I am also encouraged by the fact that we have now gotten into very high level, head of state communiqués to address this issue. This has never happened before. Now, communiqués themselves don't really do anything, but I think they signal that heads of state, heads of government, are committed to this, and it gives us an opportunity to move ahead, because we see this as a collective, common effort. If it is one country or a group of countries versus another, we won't find a solution. The only way we will find a solution is if everyone becomes a stakeholder in finding a solution. That is a role that the United States can play constructively.

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