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Surge in demand for wildlife products spurs poaching

April 8, 2015

By Kay Granger and Carter Roberts - Special to the Star-Telegram
04/07/2015 5:02 PM

In 2012, the Fort Worth Zoo celebrated the birth of an endangered greater one-horned rhinoceros — a first for Texas and a major milestone for the zoo.

That same year in South Africa, a different milestone was being marked: A record 668 rhinos were lost to poaching, a 5,000 percent increase in five years.

The poaching surge stems from a larger trend: the rise of global crime operations to feed growing demand in Asia for rhino horn, elephant ivory, tiger bone and other illegal wildlife products.

It was with this crisis as the backdrop that we first sat down three years ago to discuss working together to halt the worldwide explosion of wildlife crime.

We’ve both been fortunate to see these animals in the wild, and it’s a breathtaking experience.

Witnessing a herd of elephants and realizing that we could lose them makes the crisis very tangible. Once these animals are gone, they’re gone forever.

However, this is about more than wildlife conservation.

Poaching is nothing new, but its scope and severity are unprecedented. South Africa lost 1,215 rhinos to poaching in 2014 — double the number in 2012.

Militias in Central Africa have killed hundreds of elephants, including calves, in mere weeks. Continent-wide, 30,000 African elephants are being slaughtered annually.

Tusks become trinkets. Rhino horns become false cures for hangovers and cancer.

Surging demand makes some wildlife products as lucrative as narcotics.

Wildlife crime now generates $7-10 billion annually, the fifth-largest illicit transnational activity worldwide. High profits and low risks are too tempting to pass up, and it increasingly involves the same criminal networks smuggling arms, drugs and humans.

Intelligence confirms that the LRA, Al Shabaab, Sudanese militias and other armed groups also derive financing from illegal trade in natural resources, including ivory.

African wildlife that supports growing tourism economies is being liquidated into the currency of instability. Tusks are traded for guns, perpetuating conflict and fueling threats to our own security.

Conservation organizations can only do so much, so in 2012, the World Wildlife Fund launched its “Stop Wildlife Crime” campaign to mobilize political action.

The U.S. Congress has taken keen interest, providing resources to help countries protect their wildlife, improve law enforcement and dismantle criminal networks. These actions will strengthen our partners and protect America’s interests around the world.

We know this approach works. In Namibia, WWF and the U.S. government have helped create a model of community-run conservation that has brought rebounding wildlife populations, rising rural incomes and stronger local democracies.

In Nepal, WWF, CARE and USAID are helping communities manage their forests, protect their wildlife and improve their livelihoods.

Both countries have largely held poaching at bay. In 2014, Nepal celebrated its second year with zero poaching of rhinos, elephants or tigers — a remarkable accomplishment.

Much as investing in women and girls yields broader social benefits, helping communities conserve and manage natural resources promotes long-term growth and stability.

And preventing wildlife crime from financing America’s enemies just makes sense.

These programs are a tiny fraction of U.S. foreign assistance — itself less than 1 percent of the federal budget. For such modest investments, the return is huge.

The Fort Worth Zoo is doing its small part to protect species from half a world away, and the U.S. government has a role to play as well in helping countries like Namibia and Nepal build healthy, stable communities making wise use of their natural resources.

By doing so, we create global partners and increase their immunity to wildlife criminals and others who would undermine progress and threaten our own interests.

U.S. Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth has served the 12th Congressional District since 1997 and is a member of the House Appropriations Committee. Carter Roberts is the President and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund.