JOHANNESBURG — The Obama administration is stepping up efforts here to combat illegal wildlife poaching, an expanding criminal enterprise in South Africa that has driven several animal species toward extinction and fueled the growth of international gangs.
But the effort is coming as South Africa wrestles with its own strategy, which could diverge significantly from Washington’s. Just last month, a South African court lifted a ban on domestic trade in rhinoceros horns, reigniting a debate between those who claim that a legal trade within South Africa’s borders could help stem the poaching crisis and those who say it would only worsen it.
Tipping the scale, the United States government is pouring millions of dollars into training and intelligence gathering to help counter losses among endangered species like the African rhino. South Africa has 80 percent of the world’s rhino population.
And the Obama administration sees national security implications to poaching since it is generally carried out by gangs that also traffic in guns, people and drugs.
“The bottom line is the impact of wildlife trafficking isn’t just contained to Africa,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, who has introduced legislation to require the Obama administration to develop a country-by-country strategy on poaching. “The impacts of this rapidly growing crisis are spreading around the world, now even threatening our national security.”
Trafficking in wildlife has decimated elephant and rhino populations in Africa. In the first eight months of this year, poachers had killed 749 rhinos in South Africa, up from 716 over the same period in 2014, according to the latest figures from the South African government.
In many Asian countries, especially Vietnam and China, rhino horns are believed to cure ailments like headaches and hangovers, and a single rhino horn can fetch up to $60,000. The horns are also made into libation cups and are considered a symbol of wealth among the emerging middle class in Asian countries. Illegal wildlife trafficking is estimated to be a roughly $20 billion-a-year enterprise globally.
But the trade has moved beyond Asia. The United States has grown into the second-largest market for illegal wildlife products and is a major conduit of contraband flowing across the Pacific.
One of the many groups being funded by the United States to help combat the illegal wildlife trade here is the Endangered Wildlife Trust, an environmental group that works to protect endangered animal and plant species.
Based in an industrial park just outside Johannesburg, the group is one of three nongovernmental organizations here that recently received a combined $1.8 million in grants from the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement to train law enforcement and government officials to use surveillance equipment and to identify and protect endangered plant species.
Adam Pires, who runs training programs for the wildlife trust, said that many law enforcement officials often lack the skills to properly investigate poaching.
“Most of these guys are used to covering murders and street crimes,” Mr. Pires said. “They don’t know anything about collecting evidence for environmental crimes or preserving a poaching crime scene.”
The United States Department of Justice has received $100,000 from the State Department to provide training for prosecutors and judges from six southern African countries to combat illegal animal and plant sales.
The training, which was held in Zambia, focused on criminal investigation procedures such as establishing a chain of custody, tracing assets and prosecuting environmental cases, said John C. Cruden, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s environment and natural resources division.
“We’re ratcheting up our efforts in southern Africa since this is where so much of the illegal rhino horns and other materials come from,” Mr. Cruden said.
The wildlife trust has provided antipoaching training to more than 450 police and intelligence officials. The training, Mr. Pires says, has contributed to an increase in the number of people arrested for poaching. Arrests in Kruger National Park, a major area of operations for poachers in South Africa, totaled 138 as of August 2015 compared with 81 arrests over the same period last year, according to government data.
American money has gone to help provincial governments buy equipment such as night-vision goggles, said Moses Rannditsheni, a spokesman for the South African Department of Environmental Affairs.
The South African government has requested boots, tents and other survival gear discarded by the Defense Department and the Coast Guard through the Excess Defense Articles program, which offers equipment free or at a discount to foreign governments, Mr. Rannditsheni said.
Antipoaching efforts in South Africa and neighboring countries are part of a larger American effort to stem the booming illegal trade in wildlife. The recently completed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement includes deals with several Asian countries to require them to enforce laws and regulations to protect wildlife covered under an international treaty that protects endangered plants and animals.
According to research by the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University, the illegal trade is being driven by international criminal gangs, most of which are non-African. The center received a grant of nearly $400,000 from the State Department to identify syndicate leaders, trade routes and financiers in the South African wildlife trade.
Louise Shelley, the center’s director of the center, said the gangs are led by Pakistani and other Asian poachers who use African middlemen to hunt and transport the animals. People involved in the illegal wildlife trade in South Africa also deal in drugs and cigarettes.
Dr. Shelley said the center’s efforts to fully grasp the size and composition of illegal poaching have been hampered by a lack of cooperation and intelligence sharing from the South African government.
“They have not been willing to share any information with us,” Dr. Shelley said.
The South African Police Service, one of the law enforcement agencies leading the government’s antipoaching efforts, did not respond to requests for comment.
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