Stopping criminals who traffic wildlife

The illegal wildlife trade, generating almost $20 billion annually for criminal syndicates, is under pressure from the United States.

Since 2015, the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking in 2015 has activated a three-pronged strategy to promote law enforcement, build international cooperation, and reduce demand for illegal wild animals and their parts. The U.S. attorney general and secretaries of State and Interior co-chair the task force, which draws upon 17 federal agencies to implement the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking.

In the 2019 fiscal year, the U.S. government planned to spend $114 million to combat wildlife trafficking worldwide, according to the 2020 END Wildlife Trafficking Act Strategic Review.

Animal skins, other animal parts and bottles on shelves (© Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)
The skin of a rare wild cat is displayed with other wild animal parts at a traditional medicine shop in Myanmar. (© Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)

“We work with a whole-of-government approach on strategic avenues to stop wildlife trafficking globally,” said Rowena Watson of the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

The problem

The loss of iconic species from anywhere in the world affects tourism and takes resources away from countries that need them for their own sustainable development, according to Mary Rowen, senior wildlife adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “We don’t want to lose them for any reason — such loss affects many,” she said.

Demand for protected species — among them pangolins, elephants and rhinos — drives the illegal and lucrative trade. Demand is on the rise in Asia, particularly in China, due to the spending power of a burgeoning middle class. “China is definitely at the heart of the problem,” said Watson, who leads a wildlife conservation team at the State Department.

Crimes against elephants and rhinos in Africa hurt locals in several ways. They fuel corruption and undermine the rule of law and hard-fought conservation gains. Such crimes rob communities of their natural resources and livelihoods, Watson said. Other species hunted for food — including pangolins, primates, rats and bats — can carry diseases that may spill over into one person and then spread, through a village or around the globe.

Rhino horns, made of the same protein as human fingernails, are ground up and used in traditional Asian medicines. They’re also sold as status items — used in jewelry, for instance. In a recent year, 508 rhinos were plundered from South Africa alone, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

African elephants are slaughtered for their tusks, which are used to create artistic objects — from intricate sculptures to simple bracelets. Roughly 55 African elephants are killed for their ivory every day, according to the World Wildlife Fund. At times, elephants’ leathery skin is turned into jewelry trinkets and footstools.

An estimated 195,000 pangolins, found in both Africa and Asia, were trafficked in 2019 for their scales alone, the World Wildlife Fund reports. Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam, and the mammal’s scales are purported (without evidence) to improve lactation in nursing mothers and cure certain diseases.

According to the organization C4ADS, 253 tons of pangolin scales were confiscated worldwide from 2015 to 2019. Most of these were destined for China. Scales are often trafficked to China from Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Pangolin resting head in person’s hand (© Denis Farrell/AP Images)
After being rescued from poachers, a pangolin recovers at the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital. (© Denis Farrell/AP Images)


U.S. agencies that are part of the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking are taking steps to end trafficking:

  • Strengthening Law Enforcement: Agencies across the government work to improve the entire criminal justice response, including interdictions, enforcement and prosecutions. The State Department treats wildlife trafficking as a major transnational criminal enterprise and a national security threat. It helps other countries implement laws to stop it. USAID and the State Department build capacity along the enforcement chain, including with prosecutors to help them develop cases. “The whole idea of improving prosecutions is to get the people higher-up on the food chain,” USAID’s Rowen said.
  • Building International Cooperation: The State Department uses diplomacy to secure commitments at the highest levels to close high-risk wildlife markets, stop corruption and stem the flow of money tainted by trafficking. USAID works with the airline industry to reduce the use of air transportation to traffic animals and their parts.
  • Reducing Demand: Working through its embassies, the United States reaches people worldwide, educating them on the dangers posed by the illegal trade in wildlife, including the very real links to the spread of disease. USAID used initial research in China and Thailand to determine who buys what wildlife products, why and under what circumstances. Using lessons learned there and from ongoing studies it supports in Vietnam, USAID with other agencies, nongovernmental organizations and marketers is generating communications campaigns that can change consumer behavior.