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Obama launches U.S. push to curb illegal wildlife trade

President Obama launched a new effort today to combat the illegal wildlife trade that has devastated African elephant and rhino populations.

Obama signed an executive order this morning aimed at better coordinating the U.S. response to illegal trafficking in wildlife parts. In addition, the White House announced that $10 million will be made available to help train those who fight poaching in Africa.

The new funding includes $3 million in assistance to South Africa, $3 million in assistance to Kenya and $4 million in assistance throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

The announcement was timed to coincide with Obama's ongoing tour of Africa. Today, the president is touring Tanzania, a top target of criminal poacher syndicates. The White House said it plans to send a Fish and Wildlife Service official to the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam to support Tanzania's efforts to develop a wildlife security strategy.

The executive order creates the Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking and charges the group with developing a national strategy to coordinate U.S. efforts to combat illegal trafficking. The president gave the task force six months to produce that strategy. The task force will be aided by a new Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, composed of eight nongovernmental experts on wildlife trafficking.

The World Wildlife Fund estimated in a report in December that the illegal wildlife trade is least $19 billion a year. That would make it the fourth-largest illegal global trade behind narcotics, counterfeiting and human trafficking.

"Poaching operations have expanded beyond small-scale, opportunistic actions to coordinated slaughter commissioned by armed and organized criminal syndicates," the executive order says.

According to a White House pool report from Tanzania, Grant Harris, the senior director for Africa for the National Security Council, said rhinoceros horns are now selling on the black market for $30,000 a pound, or "literally worth greater than their weight in gold."

Ivory from elephant tusks is selling for $1,000 a pound, he said.

"It's decimating the populations of some of Africa's iconic animals," Harris said.

He added that the United States has been working to raise the global profile of the issue.

"We've also had a massive diplomatic campaign, including under the leadership of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she was at the State Department, convening people at State and making this a big diplomatic element of our policy," he said.

The president's new effort comes just months after Obama signed the Transnational Organized Crime Rewards Program into law in January. That legislation, which was sponsored by now-Secretary of State John Kerry before his appointment, allows the State Department to offer rewards for information leading to the arrest, conviction or identification of members of transnational criminal organizations who operate primarily outside the United States (Greenwire, May 25, 2012).

"The United States intends to leverage this new authority, as appropriate, to combat the most significant perpetrators of wildlife trafficking," the White House said today. "In addition, the Department of Interior will enhance regulations that directly affect illegal wildlife trafficking of elephants and rhinoceroses. These regulations pertain to U.S. federal laws including the Endangered Species Act, the African Elephant Conservation Act, and the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act."

The efforts announced today are designed to build on the more than $12 million a year that the U.S. Agency for International Development uses to support counter-wildlife trafficking activities; U.S. support for the International Law Enforcement Academy in Botswana; and ongoing State Department, FWS and Justice Department wildlife training and law enforcement efforts.

Seventeen months ago, federal law enforcement and FWS officials announced a new crackdown on the black market trade of rhinoceros horns. Since becoming public, Operation Crash -- "crash" being the term for a herd of rhinos -- has led to 14 arrests and six convictions (Greenwire, May 16).

Obama's announcement today was quickly lauded by wildlife conservation groups.

"This action gives recognition to the threat the illicit trade poses not only to animals like elephants and rhinos, but also to people," the International Fund for Animal Welfare said in a statement. "The president's decision to prioritize the issue will hopefully save hundreds of lives of people on the front line of this battle, and also save hundreds of thousands of individual animals exploited by this brutal trade."

Carter Roberts, WWF's president and CEO, said, "President Obama's commitment to help stop the global crime wave that is emptying the continent's forests and savannas is welcome news. It gives a critical boost for everyone involved in fighting wildlife trafficking -- from rangers on the ground to local conservation groups to decisionmakers around the globe. The future of our wild world rests in our hands, and now we must move with all due speed to make sure elephants, rhinos and other extraordinary creatures don't disappear forever."

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