US and UK see eye to eye on ending illegal wildlife trade


Tim Wittig & Ari Mittleman, Opinion / The Hill

Date Published

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In recent months, the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom has been intensively scrutinized. Much has been written about fraying in the alliance and alleged personality differences between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Joe Biden.

The visit of Johnson to the White House should dispel these notions.

The increasingly complex geopolitics of the next decade demand that the alliance between the British and American governments, business communities and non-profit sectors only deepen.

While Washington and London have distinct interests and unique strengths, these should be viewed as complementary.

An existing avenue for partnership that can only grow stronger is combating illegal wildlife trafficking. The kleptocracy, habitat destruction and transnational criminal activity behind illegal wildlife trafficking is a common threat for both British and American policymakers.

Fortunately, U.S. and UK law enforcement, private business leaders and non-profit stakeholders are working daily to disrupt transnational criminal organizations profiting from illegal wildlife trafficking. Alongside illicit shipments of arms and drugs, illegal wildlife trafficking is incredibly lucrative for transnational criminal organizations. Often run by highly organized criminal networks, estimates are that the value of the illicit global enterprise is up to $175 billion per year.

While the effects of illegal wildlife trafficking are profound, there are a surprisingly small number of transnational criminal organizations with the logistical and financial capacity to move illicit goods between continents. Transporting wildlife contraband involves an identifiable set of bureaucratic activities that leave actionable evidence.

Because of this, beginning five years ago, the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, convened executives from the leading British and American banking and transportation companies. The private sector has often been unwittingly involved with those who traffic illegal wildlife products — such as ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales.

The aim of this collaboration has been to examine the entire illegal wildlife trade chain. Combining the full weight of British and American law enforcement and intelligence perspectives and the unique capabilities of the private sector has been crucial. By forming transatlantic partnerships with businesses, not only can iconic species be saved, but criminal enterprises that also traffic in arms, drugs and humans can be disrupted.

Further collaboration began this year. Congress passed the American Rescue Plan earlier this year, which devoted an additional $105 million to the annual operating budget of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. This will permit additional Fish and Wildlife Service professionals to work abroad alongside their British counterparts in areas of particularly acute trafficking.

This sent a clear message that zoonotic disease and the illegal wildlife trade are a national and international security threat. Furthermore, it solidified that law enforcement — especially the Fish and Wildlife Service — has an important role to play in preventing future pandemics. Included in the legislation was an appropriation for $45 million tasking the Fish and Wildlife Service with developing an early detection and rapid response system. This will trigger when wildlife disease outbreaks occur anywhere in the world. As this system is developed, coordination with British stakeholders will be crucial.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations worked to elevate wildlife trafficking as a serious crime through executive orders and other policy initiatives. Indeed, President Obama signed into law the Eliminate, Neutralize and Disrupt (END) Wildlife Trafficking Act, which directs the secretary of State, in consultation with the secretary of the Interior and the secretary of Commerce, to submit to Congress an annual report identifying countries of particular concern. The Trump administration utilized the Immigration and Nationality Act to ban travel on immediate family members of those believed to be complicit in illegal wildlife trafficking.

As the Biden and Johnson administrations have pledged to deepen collaboration, together they should build on these recent initiatives. Working together, this will support new and innovative ways to save iconic species, combat corruption, put criminal kingpins behind bars and prevent future zoonotic pandemics.