How financial power can be used to save iconic species from extinction



Date Published
On Earth Day 2015, prospects for many of the planet’s most iconic species look bleak
Unless poaching rates decline across Africa, the rhino and elephant will be extinct within a decade. The world has lost 97% of its tigers in the last 50 years, and the great apes are on pace to disappear within a generation.
This is not just a conservation tragedy.  It’s also a national security crisis. 
Wildlife trafficking is a big business that’s fueling conflict and terror. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has estimated that wildlife trafficking, forestry and other environmental crime nets approximately $8 to $10 billion USD annually.
Smuggling wildlife is as profitable as trafficking in humans, arms, and drugs.
A myriad of powerful, violent groups, including organized crime syndicates, insurgent and terror networks, are industrializing this trade to both profit and foment conflict. They often collude with corrupt officials and businesses along the supply chain. 
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), known for child abduction, sex slavery, and the use of child soldiers, is involved in elephant poaching. In 2011, LRA’s leader, Joseph Kony, ordered members to increase ivory trafficking to sustain the group.
The Sudanese Janjaweed, notorious for their atrocities in Darfur, have profited from the ivory trade. Since the September 2013 Westgate mall attack, there have also been reports that Al Qaeda’s Africa affiliate, Al Shabaab, is acting as a middleman for the ivory trade.  Slaughtering elephants is fueling crimes against humanity. 
Networks of organized criminals and shadowy syndicates form part of the business chain, facilitating and financing illicit wildlife trade from Africa to Asia. Powerful Chinese triads, South Asian drug traffickers — some with direct links to terror networks — and Southeast Asian wildlife traders all take part. “Untouchable” smugglers, like Vixay Keosavang, known as the “Pablo Escobar of wildlife crime” smuggle everything from rhino horn to pangolin scales to lion bones.
Recognizing the need to combat wildlife trafficking, President Obama issued an Executive Order in 2013 along with a national strategy in 2014. As a result, there have been efforts to improve US law, increase budgets to combat wildlife trafficking, and post additional US officers abroad to interdict such trade.
These are important steps. But they are not enough.  
Authorities scrambling to implement these new US policies are confronted with major challenges. Penalties for wildlife traffickers remain weak or non-existent around the globe; powerful syndicate leaders are politically protected; and well-armed and funded networks have governments outgunned, outspent and often corrupted. 
This conservation crisis has not been treated as the global security threat it is.  There is an opportunity to galvanize action to save endangered species while targeting groups that profit from this trade and fuel conflict.
We can leverage the financial pressure playbook the United States has used effectively since the September 11th attacks to target terrorist financiers, proliferation, and problematic state actors like Iran.
President Obama should sign a new Executive Order authorizing the use of targeted sanctions that empower the US Treasury to identify and isolate those involved in the illicit wildlife trade. 
A regime of “Earth Sanctions,” designed to target the assets of individuals, front companies, shippers, regimes, and illicit networks sabotaging our planet’s resources and threatening our national security would provide an essential tool to fight and deter the wildlife trade. At the same time, they could help disrupt a source of revenue for some of the most dangerous terrorist and militia groups.
For this to be effective, there would need to be a small, dedicated group of analysts, investigators, and prosecutors dedicated to mapping, tracking, and targeting the assets held by the transnational syndicates trading in wildlife.
Such a sanctions package would build on the targeted regimes that already focus on illicit transnational activity, like drug trafficking and organized crime. It would be effective against those who most need access to the formal banking and commercial system to trade and do business. 
Given the effect of such measures globally, this type of financial isolation reaches well beyond US ports and borders. Chinese triads trafficking rhino horn from South Africa to Asia could be targeted, with their financial access and interests put at risk.
The US government could sanction unscrupulous timber and mining firms in Congo and Gabon that smuggle ivory under the cover of their “legitimate” business operations. Corrupt senior officials and military leaders who protect and facilitate the wildlife trade in Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan and Cameroon could be blocked from the global financial system and from travel to the United States.
Earth Sanctions would widen opportunities to target those financially facilitating sanctioned groups, such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Lord’s Resistance Army. They could also deter those deciding whether to enter the market.
Such sanctions would put a greater onus on the private sector implicated in this trade — which includes banks, port management companies, maritime shipping firms and airlines — to ensure they are not unwittingly facilitating the illicit traffic of endangered species.
But solving the problem requires an even broader international framework.  The US should propose a new UN sanctions regime to parallel the Executive Order, putting pressure on China to work cooperatively to stem demand, address corruption, and assist with interdiction. There are signs that even Beijing recognizes that the networks smuggling ivory and rhino horn are more than just a threat to conservation.
The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) should concentrate on identifying typologies of wildlife trafficking, developing standards, and assessing countries on how to effectively prevent the financing and laundering of proceeds of this trade.
The Egmont Group of financial intelligence units — especially those based in Africa — could target collection tied to wildlife trafficking networks and financing, and groups like Interpol, the World Customs Organization, and the private sector could amplify their focus on gathering data regarding major poachers and transnational criminal networks.
Coupled with important publicity campaigns to build consumer awareness led by celebrities like Yao Ming, Kathryn Bigelow, Prince William, and David Beckham, these efforts could build a coalition to save these iconic species while simultaneously undermining poachers, organized criminals, militants, and terrorists.
This year’s Earth Day is a moment to commit to our collective natural and national security. Time is running out.
Gretchen Peters is an advisor to Parcs Gabon on wildlife trafficking, the senior fellow on transnational crime at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption CENTER, and Executive Director of the Satao Project.
Juan Zarate is the former deputy national security advisor for combatting terrorism and assistant secretary of the Treasury for terrorist financing and financial crimes.  They are both members of the Board of Advisors to the Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.