Where did this link between security and wildlife trafficking come from?

The scale and scope of poaching has escalated in recent years. Increasingly, observers are linking poaching to national security interests. Is this link real? Is there a good case to be made for the inclusion of wildlife trafficking in security issues? This blog post explores the evolution of the USG’s conceptualization of the link between national security and wildlife trafficking.

In recent years, the United States has recognized a relationship between wildlife trafficking and U.S. national and international security concerns. Although wildlife-related crimes, particularly those involving threatened and endangered species, have long been recognized as an international conservation and law enforcement issue, the recent spike in African elephant and rhino poaching incidents, beginning in the mid-2000s, invigorated policymaker awareness of their links to security issues as well.

In November 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly announced that she had requested the U.S. intelligence community to “produce an assessment of the impact of large-scale wildlife trafficking on our security interests.” Simultaneously, the Department of State undertook a four part strategy to begin curbing trade in illegal and endangered wildlife including: engaging national leaders to address issues in the home countries; garnering public support in affected countries; strengthening and expanding enforcement; and expanding the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking.

The U.S. National Intelligence Council’s unclassified summary of the intelligence assessment concluded that rising demand for ivory and rhino horn among increasingly wealthy middle and upper classes in Asia is driving upward trends in poaching in Africa.  The assessment also found interdependency between the criminal actors involved in the trafficking, including organized criminal networks, some terrorist organizations, rogue security personnel, and government officials who enable the trafficking. Lastly, the report notes that poaching presents “significant security challenges for militaries and police forces in African nations.”

On July 1, 2013, President Barack Obama recognized the surge in poaching and trafficking of wildlife was “an international crisis that continues to escalate,” and issued Executive Order 13648 for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. This E.O. elevated the issue as a national priority and directed the administration to prepare a National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking.

The National Strategy, released in February 2014, described wildlife trafficking as not only a “serious and urgent” conservation concern, but also a “global security threat.” The strategy calls for the U.S. Government to combat wildlife trafficking through three priorities: strengthen enforcement, reduce demand for illegally traded wildlife, and expand international cooperation and commitment.

The Implementation Plan, which accompanies the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, was released in February of 2015. In addition to expanding on the three priorities named in the Strategy, the Plan also identifies lead and partner agencies as well as measures that can be used to track progress.

Interviews with U.S. government officials in March 2015 reflect alignment with the Strategy and support for the Implementation Plan. For example, multiple agency officials noted an increase in inter-agency communication and collaboration in the wake of the E.O. and the resulting Strategy and Plan. There was also general consensus that increased attention to wildlife trafficking, and its increasingly common link to U.S. national security, serves as a net benefit in combating trafficking. The most common risk associated with framing wildlife trafficking as a security issue was articulated more than once: conservation work not linked to security concerns may suffer relative to conservation work with a security component. In other words, conservation concerns may drive even less of the anti-wildlife trafficking agenda as a result of the link with national security.

These issues have also received attention in Congress. In a 2012 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Ivory and Insecurity, then-Senator John Kerry articulated his view of the connection between trafficking and insecurity: “The net effect of [the rise in poaching and increased involvement of criminal networks] is more insecurity, more violence, and more corruption—not to mention the devastation of existing and potential opportunities for tourism and economic development – and ultimately the depredation with respect to the stability of whole regions.” In May of 2014, during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs and East Asian Affairs, State, USAID and FWS officials discussed their agencies’ contributions to the implementation of the National Strategy.

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