Here’s What the U.S. Can Do Right Now to Help End Poaching


By John R. Platt, Take Part

Date Published

The streets of Nairobi, Kenya, have been repaved, painted, and planted with flowers in anticipation of President Barack Obama’s visit this weekend. While in the country of his father’s birth, the president will appear at the 6th Global Entrepreneurship Summit, where he will discuss job opportunities with investors, business owners, and African leaders. He will also hold a press conference with President Uhuru Kenyatta and, later, address the Kenyan people, using the opportunities to speak about economic growth and development, security, and religious extremism in the region.

Obama is also expected to discuss a topic that ties all those others together: wildlife trafficking. Half of Africa’s elephants have been killed over the past 10 years to feed demand, chiefly in Asia, for ivory. Rhino poaching, which was nearly nonexistent nine years ago, was up 21 percent in South Africa in 2014. More than a million pangolins have been poached from Africa and Asia over the past decade. Criminal gangs and terrorist groups funded by the illegal trade threaten the stability of Kenya and other African countries.

As the world’s most influential and effective player in combating the scourge of many of the planet’s most iconic, charismatic, and ecologically significant species, the U.S. can do plenty to help Kenya, and other countries where poaching occurs, to fight it.

Recent research at the University of Washington linked the DNA from seized ivory with DNA sampled from elephant dung across Africa to identify poaching hot spots. Though 15 countries were identified as sources, a great deal of the ivory seized over the last decade, represented by the blue circles, came from Kenya. Crosses mark the locations of Kenyan ivory seized. (Map: Marc Fusco; data: courtesy University of Washington and Science.)

The themes of wildlife and entrepreneurship fit together nicely. “Ecotourism brings in billions of dollars to Africa every year,” said Jeffrey Flocken, regional director, North America, for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. (The entire tourism sector contributed about $36 billion in sub-Saharan Africa alone in 2012, according to the World Bank.) In many countries, including Kenya, that tourism “is entirely generated by wildlife,” said M. Sanjayan, executive vice president and senior scientist at Conservation International.

As the son of a Kenyan, Obama enjoys wide admiration and corresponding influence in the country and the region. Any talk from the president about poaching while he is in Kenya will be heard beyond its borders. “Using Kenya as a platform to talk about regional or continent-wide conservation issues has to be the goal,” said Adam Roberts, chief executive officer of Born Free USA. “The rest of Africa, or least East Africa, is listening.”

Supply and Demand

The war against the illegal trade in wildlife occurs on two fronts: the supply side and the demand side. Help on either would no doubt be welcome, but with East Africa being the point of origin of so many trafficked animals, announcing new and increased measures to reduce supply would make the most sense during Obama’s weekend in Kenya.

The first place to do that is in the field—that is, to stop poaching where it’s happening. “Effective on-the-ground protection requires suitable operational support, including trained rangers; knowledge of patrol tactics; access to equipment and transportation; and adaptive management systems,” Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of the World Wildlife Fund, told the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health during a hearing last week. The Kenya Wildlife Service has increased its anti-poaching activities since 2012 and seen some success, according to George Wittemyer, a biology professor at Colorado State University and chairman of the scientific board for Save the Elephants. But Kenya is a poor country, and KWS is not well-funded: Wittemyer told the senators that anti-poaching vehicles in Amboseli National Park would run out of fuel in the first few days of each month were it not for the grant KWS receives from the Elephant Crisis Fund, a zero-overhead joint effort of Save the Elephants, Wildlife Conservation Network, and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

For the most part, it’s not African people buying the wildlife products that come from African animals; tusks and rhino horns and the rest must leave Africa to reach their market. Seaports and airports are therefore a potential chokepoint in stopping the wildlife trade, said Roberts. The U.S. could have a major impact by helping African countries intercept such products: Allocating resources for X-ray machines and sniffer dogs at ports such as Mombasa in Kenya, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia would be a good start, Roberts said, as research by Born Free and the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington has shown that many of the wildlife products shipped out of Africa go through these three ports.

Engaging on these issues requires diplomacy and a gentle hand. Experts said Kenya welcomes the support of the United States but doesn’t want to be told what to do by outside interests. (Kenyatta, for one, seems receptive: On Tuesday Kenya joined the Elephant Protection Initiative, a program founded in 2014 by leaders of six African countries.) Governments and NGOs have a history of coming to Africa, starting programs and then leaving. Corruption exists on many levels, and wildlife trafficking creates even more temptation. In many rural communities in East Africa and elsewhere, some don’t even view wildlife as something worth saving; they see it as a threat to their crops or their safety and view conservation as a foreign concept.  

Toward that last point, Sanjayan said the U.S. could play a lead role in supporting community-based conservation efforts, which are crucial to the long-term success of wildlife preservation and defense against poaching in Kenya and throughout Africa. Community-based approaches generally try to establish ways for local people to become stewards of—and profit from—their natural environment. Programs throughout Africa have trained people to farm or raise bees instead of hunt, protect wildlife instead of poach it, or operate facilities for tourists seeking to view native fauna. Sanjayan pointed to the conservancies operated under the aegis of the Northern Rangelands Trust—which was established in 2004 by the U.S. Agency for International Development and Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy—as examples of systems that help local people to see wildlife as assets worth protecting. “These community-based efforts are often the strongest forms by which people put eyes and ears on the ground,” Sanjayan said. “The community is involved, they’re getting support, and with them it’s more likely that poaching is going to die down.”

Flocken and others, without prompting, praised the people in Africa who are already doing the hard work—even laying down their lives—to protect the continent’s wildlife. “These people are incredibly committed,” said Flocken. “They need more resources and tools, and the U.S. can help with that.”

The demand side of the wildlife trade can be even more complicated. Conservation experts said that if President Obama is to address demand for illegal wildlife products during his visit, the two most important steps would involve elephant ivory. The first, Flocken said, would be to unveil new regulations “to close the legal loopholes that have allowed the ivory trade in the U.S. to flourish.” Such regulations have been in the works for a while, and Flocken said the president’s appearance in Kenya would be the perfect time to formally announce them. “It would be a missed opportunity” otherwise, he said.

The second would be to fully protect elephants under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which only recognizes them as “threatened.” That’s part of the inconsistency that allows antique ivory to be legally bought and sold in the U.S., which increases demand for poached ivory. (One of the other animals people come to Kenya to see, the African lion, is also being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act and other mechanisms.)

Such actions would send a powerful signal to China, the single biggest driver of demand for ivory, which experts say is closely watching every move that Washington, Albany, and Sacramento make regarding ivory. For example, in November 2013 the U.S. crushed six tons of illegal, seized ivory. Within two months, China crushed 6.1 tons of ivory it had confiscated. “I thought that [amount] was a very interesting choice,” said John F. Calvelli, executive vice president for public affairs at Wildlife Conservation Society.

A Long History of Leadership

Any announcements of new or stepped-up initiatives undertaken by President Obama this weekend would be building on a long history of U.S. involvement, up to and including this past May, in combating the wildlife trade.

Secretary of State John Kerry visits the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a home for elephants orphaned by the ivory trade, at Nairobi National Park, outside the Kenyan capital, in May. (Photo: Courtesy

Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, in 2012 called on countries to join the U.S. in setting up a worldwide system of regionally based networks to coordinate enforcement. When Obama visited Tanzania in July 2013, he said at a press conference that he and President Jakaya Kikwete had discussed “an issue that’s inseparable from Africa’s identity and prosperity, and that’s its wildlife,” adding that “the entire world has a stake in making sure that we preserve Africa’s beauty for future generations.”

Obama did more than just talk, announcing $10 million in funding from the Department of State to provide technical and training assistance to combat poaching throughout Africa. Nearly a third of that money was earmarked for Kenya.

That same day, Obama issued an executive order establishing a Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, combining the efforts of the Interior, Justice, and State Departments. The Task Force published a national strategy for combating wildlife trafficking in 2014 and earlier this year released its implementation plan, which includes a broad focus on enforcing existing laws, steps to reduce worldwide demand for illegal wildlife products, and building a coalition of public-private partnerships. Several sources indicated that numerous programs stemming from this national strategy, which they would not disclose, will be announced soon, and the Tanzania precedent of 2013 suggests it could come this weekend.

U.S. leadership in protecting endangered species didn’t start three years ago. The Lacey Act of 1900 protected a wide range of fish, wildlife and plants. Airborne species got their own boost from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The year 1973 brought both the Endangered Species Act as well as the establishment of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

When these laws and conventions didn’t prevent the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of elephants for their ivory between 1979 and 1989 (revealed through a continent-wide aerial census of elephants taken by the founder of Save the Elephants, Iain Douglas-Hamilton), the U.S. took two important steps, banning the import of all ivory in 1989, then, as a delegate to CITES, voting to ban ivory trade worldwide. That effectively stopped the ivory trade and poaching crisis until CITES, against the advice of many conservationists including Douglas-Hamilton, allowed sales of ivory to Japan in 2000, and again to dealers in China and Japan in 2008, acts which many say fostered the current poaching crisis by stoking Asian demand for ivory.

Even if President Obama doesn’t mention lions, elephants, or any other species while in Africa this week, the weeks and months ahead could see a great deal of movement on the poaching front, at both the state and federal levels.

Elephants continue to work their way through the ESA process, and California and Washington have ivory bills before their state legislatures, the latter of which enjoys campaign support from Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen (who is concurrently funding a new continent-wide elephant census).

Meanwhile, several government agencies are in the fight. The budget for combating wildlife trafficking at USAID has increased to more than $50 million in fiscal year 2014, up from $13 million in fiscal year 2012, reports Mary Rowen, the agency’s senior biodiversity policy advisor. She said the agency is working with the private sector to help transport companies limit the flow of illegal goods and supports conservancies in many areas of Africa.

The State Department, another key player, supports hands-on training efforts and offers foreign assistance funds to help partner nations. It just started a pilot program with the Department of Justice and KWS to expand aerial surveillance in conservation 

“It’s a joint counterterrorism and conservation program,” explained Susan Driano, Kenya desk officer with the State Department. State also engages in a lot of outreach work, including hosting screenings of documentaries such as Gardeners of Eden (which was produced by TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media).

Some members of Congress have been active in this area. Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., has been speaking out about the global poaching crisis for years, and bills before the House and  the Senate would raise the profile of wildlife trafficking as a federal crime and give law enforcement the same tools to fight it as they employ against major drug dealers.

Perhaps one of the most important messages President Obama could send this weekend, Sanjayan said, is that “Kenya is open for business.” Fears that tourists face threats from terrorism or armed poachers are overblown, he said, considering country is the size of Texas and the recent violence has been directed against Kenyans.  

The nation’s business community concurs. “With last year’s instabilities in some remote parts of Kenya, many tourists now have a perception that Kenya is not the ideal holiday destination,” said Robert Breare, chief operating officer of Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a private wildlife reserve covering 90,000 acres in central Kenya. “President Obama’s trip to Kenya will help us tremendously as people around the world will see Kenya as a safe and recommended place to visit,” he said. The re-opening of the Westgate Mall on Monday, two years after a terrorist attack killed 67 people there, was an important milestone.

Breare’s message will be difficult to get through, however, as the State Department two weeks ago issued atravel alert warning that the very Global Entrepreneurship Summit at which President Obama will be speaking could be a “a target for terrorists.” That seems to contrast with the tone of much of Obama’s African visit, but it reflects the complexity of the issues facing the continent.