U.S. Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking: Efforts to Combat Wildlife Trafficking
March 3 marks World Wildlife Day, an opportunity to celebrate the world’s wild animals and plants and raise awareness about the risks many face. Wildlife trafficking is an urgent threat to many species and undermines security and economic development. Consistent with the President’s call for a comprehensive approach to transnational criminal organizations, the United States government is committed to combating wildlife trafficking, and works closely with a wide range of public and private partners to strengthen enforcement, reduce the demand for illegal wildlife and wildlife products, and expand international cooperation.
During the last year, the U.S. government and its partners made progress both at home and abroad to protect our planet’s wildlife and dismantle the transnational criminal organizations that profit from this illegal trade. These efforts are coordinated through the interagency Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, which is co-chaired by the Department of State, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Justice, and brings together 17 government departments and agencies for a whole-of-government approach to combating wildlife trafficking.
The Task Force is working to implement the bipartisan Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt (END) Wildlife Trafficking Act, which the U.S. Congress passed unanimously in September 2016 and became law in October 2016. This act gives the United States additional tools to combat wildlife trafficking and foster international action to end this threat to our natural heritage.
Some highlights of the Task Force’s efforts during the last year include:
- Operation Crash, an ongoing multi-year rhino horn and ivory smuggling investigation led by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and prosecuted by the Department of Justice, resulted in the arrests and successful prosecutions of numerous individuals or businesses, more than 30 convictions, prison terms as long as 70 months, and $7.5 million paid in fines and forfeitures.
- The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service deployed new law enforcement attachés to U.S. embassies in China and Gabon, joining existing attaches in Thailand, Tanzania, Botswana, and Peru. These federal law enforcement officers, in partnership with U.S. Government and local law enforcement, are successfully investigating and prosecuting the transnational criminal organizations involved in wildlife trafficking.
- In cooperation with the International Consortium to Combat Wildlife Crime (ICCWC), the United States joined enforcement agencies from more than 60 countries in an international enforcement operation, Operation Thunderbird, from January 30 to February 19, 2017. As part of this operation, Task Force agencies conducted multiple enforcement operations, blitzes, and increased seaport and air cargo inspections at ports throughout the United States.
- In January 2017, the United States awarded a World Customs Organization (WCO) Certificate of Merit on behalf of the WCO Secretary General to Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) staff in San Diego for its work to stop the trafficking of sea cucumbers. This followed a collaborative effort between HSI, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Mexican government that found discrepancies in import and export records. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of California is in the process of presenting a 22-count indictment and a $10 million dollar forfeiture.
- NOAA supports efforts to improve the capacity of foreign partners to combat the illegal trade in marine species, participating in fisheries enforcement and prosecution workshops in multiple countries (including Mexico, Honduras, Senegal and Ghana) to address operational law enforcement matters, such as species identification, investigation tools, case preparation, fisheries regulations, evidence collection/preservation, information sharing, and cooperation. In West Africa, NOAA assisted in the development of identification guides that will provide key information to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), fisheries, and customs authorities in West Africa for implementation and enforcement of CITES listings in a format that can be accessed and disseminated. NOAA also supported an investigation into the routes and methods used to smuggle totoaba in China and Hong Kong, an endangered fish species, whose illegal harvest and trade of their swim bladders is driving the decline of the critically endangered vaquita.
- The Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and other agencies are implementing the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) system for filing information related to plant imports. This system has substantially increased stakeholder awareness of the Lacey Act Amendments of 2008, improved analytical capability, and strengthened compliance.
- The Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service funded capacity building for more than 2,000 law enforcement and judicial officials around the world in 2016. These efforts draw from the expertise of other Task Force agencies; for example, the Department of Justice organized a regional capacity building program on best practices to counter wildlife trafficking for more than 70 prosecutors and judges in 11 African countries.
- Department of State programs trained and mentored investigators of the Lusaka Agreement Task Force on how to follow the trail of documents and money, which helped them identify members of wildlife trafficking networks in Central and East Africa, leading to 11 high-level arrests. The investigations uncovered a six-ton shipment of pangolin scales leaving Tanzania and more than two tons of elephant tusks shipped from the Democratic Republic of Congo, both destined for Asia.
- The Department of State supports canine detection units in Kenya, Uganda, and, in collaboration with USAID, in Tanzania, to detect smuggled wildlife products at airports, ports, and other major transit zones. The canine unit deployed to Entebbe Airport in Uganda became operational in December 2016 and has already seized 30 illegal shipments consisting of mostly ivory. The units in Kenya and Tanzania have also been successful at intercepting illegal wildlife shipments, with seizures including 1,000 live tortoises, 67 sacks of pangolin scales, and more than two tons of containerized ivory in the past two months alone.
- USAID concluded its five-year Asia's Regional Response to Endangered Species Trafficking (ARREST) counter wildlife trafficking program, which trained 2,300 officers from 14 countries across Asia and contributed to more than 1,300 arrests and the seizure of more than $150 million in criminal assets. High-level training for Tanzania’s National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit is generating similar results in East Africa.
- USAID supports an aerial reconnaissance program in Tanzania that is providing both deterrence and rapid response to wildlife crime, including in Rungwa Game Reserve, "ground zero" for the poaching crisis in the country. In Central Africa, USAID support for more frequent, strategic, and comprehensive law enforcement monitoring in protected areas helped rangers detect and remove nearly 10,000 wire snares and destroy 437 hunting camps. In Mozambique, training of scouts contributed to 322 prosecutions and 185 convictions for wildlife crimes in and around Gorongosa National Park.
- The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has conducted tailored enforcement and forensic capacity-building training courses in multiple countries. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service awarded more than $21 million in grants and cooperative agreements, matched by an additional $33 million, supporting 141 wildlife trafficking-related projects in 48 partner countries. Funded projects receive assistance of equipment, training for ranger-led anti-poaching patrols, as well as support for community member involvement in conservation activities. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provides this technical and financial assistance through three regional programs (Central Africa, Eurasia and Western Hemisphere) as well as through the five species conservation funds (African Elephant Conservation Fund, Asian Elephant Conservation Fund, Rhino Tiger Conservation Fund, and Marine Turtle Conservation Fund).
- The comprehensive, whole-of-government approach espoused by the Task Force is in full force in Bangladesh, where USAID and the Departments of Defense, Justice, and State collaborated to protect tigers and secure fisheries and forests in the Sundarbans wetland. With U.S. assistance in 2016, Bangladesh’s Forest Department and Coast Guard jointly patrolled 2,500 km and detected and demolished a 60-70 person poaching camp inside the sanctuary. A tiger hotline received 80 anonymous tips, helping authorities respond to both wildlife crime and problem animals. A workshop on DNA testing options led law enforcement officials to adopt certain forensics approaches and standards for wildlife crime prosecutions. And, local communities and national decision makers were mobilized by a “Tiger Caravan” campaign that reached millions of people through street theater and exhibits covered nationally in newspapers and on television and radio programs.
- The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative coordinates with other agencies to ensure that resources are applied to help enforce international obligations and implement commitments to protect wildlife. For example, under the framework of the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), the Department of State worked with the Department of the Interior to support the Central American Wildlife Enforcement Network (CAWEN). Between 2010 and 2016, CAWEN trained 1,240 officials, including judges, prosecutors, police, and customs officers, to prevent, detect, investigate, and prosecute wildlife and timber crimes. CAWEN also assisted in planning two binational enforcement operations in 2015-2016 to combat the illegal trade of wildlife along the border zones between El Salvador and Honduras as well as between Costa Rica and Panama, supporting greater public awareness of wildlife laws and increased enforcement presence of relevant government agencies in key wildlife trafficking corridors.
- The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Intelligence Community dedicated new resources to strengthen their ability to support the Task Force, appointing new staff and strengthened relations with relevant law enforcement agencies. The Intelligence Community established governance with an Intelligence Community/Task Force Intelligence Strategy board, which includes key Task Force representatives and senior representatives from all key IC organizations having related topic equities. The IC also created a Combating Wildlife Trafficking (CWT)-focused analytic community of interest for helping to make sense of collected data and to respond to requests for information.
- The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service completed its implementation of a near-total domestic ban on the trade in African elephant ivory. Building on that effort, diplomatic engagement with China led by the Department of State resulted in China’s announcement that it will complete the closure of its domestic market for elephant ivory by the end of 2017.
- The United States held its first burn of illegal rhino horn. More than 20 countries worldwide have joined us in publicly destroying ivory, rhino horn, and/or other illegal wildlife products to send a message to traffickers and their customers that we will not tolerate the illegal wildlife trade.
- U.S. Embassies continue to promote demand reduction activities overseas. A new Public Service Announcement by the U.S. Ambassador to China was seen by 780,000 people daily, building on a USAID campaign that is seen by more than 23 million people daily.
- Surveys on the impact of USAID’s far-reaching demand reduction campaigns in Asia found that 11 percent fewer Chinese consumers reported buying ivory since the previous year, and only seven percent of Vietnamese consumers said that they would purchase “medicinal” wildlife products again. Separately, a Demand Reduction Toolkit was completed and is being used to develop new behavior change campaigns.
- The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has established public-private partnerships to reach new audiences and empower consumers to be good stewards of our planet’s wildlife. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and JetBlue are encouraging travelers to protect the beauty and wildlife of the Caribbean. Discovery Communications created a public service announcement (PSA) narrated by Edward Norton that aired on Discovery’s networks. These partnerships leverage the creative talents of these leading companies and enable the Task Force to reach tens of millions of consumers with important messages to help combat illegal wildlife trade. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service also partnered with WildAid to launch a domestic demand reduction campaign. Joint press conferences, WildAid celebrity ambassadors, social media, and $2 million in donated advertising space have reached almost three million people to-date.
Expanding International Cooperation
- With U.S. leadership at the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Hawaii, the international community called on all governments to close their domestic markets for African elephant ivory and to protect 120 additional animal species. The United States stood side-by-side with partner nations to close domestic ivory markets and secure protections through CITES at its 17th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP17) for many other trafficked species including pangolins, African grey parrots, nautiluses, and rosewood.
- Also at CITES CoP17, the Department of State helped convene the Second Global Meeting of Wildlife Enforcement Networks (WENS), bringing together more than 20 regional organizations to share best practices, enhance cooperation among enforcement organizations and further develop the global network of WENs.
- The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is building capacity to strengthen CITES implementation in key countries and regions. This work is one of five priorities supported by their new CWT financial assistance program.
- USAID’s Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (ROUTES) partnership with international conservation organizations, other U.S. government agencies, and transportation and logistics companies initiated its first round of training to help personnel at airports in South Africa and Vietnam detect wildlife in suitcases and airline cargo. Through its partnership with the International Air Transport Association, ROUTES helped precipitate a unanimous resolution by 260 airlines to consider adopting policies and procedures that discourage illegal trade in wildlife.
- The Department of State held the first Zoohackathon at five zoos and conservation centers across the globe in October, raising awareness of the issue among a new generation of technologists and identifying innovative applications and tools to combat wildlife trafficking. The Task Force and partners are currently supporting further development of several winners in hopes of bringing those products to the market in 2017.