Combating Wildlife Trafficking with 21st Century Statecraft

by Clint Shoemake

This May thirty-three elephant carcasses were discovered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Garamba National Park—all of them were killed for their tusks. The park lies in a remote area of the country and in a region of Africa plagued by instability and conflict. Joseph Kony and his infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who caused an inordinate amount of human suffering in Northern Uganda through the recruitment of child soldiers and the pervasive use of gender-based violence, have been known to frequent the area. Last summer it was reported that Kony used poached ivory from Garamba to fund his fundamentalist Christian terrorist organization. The tusks were funneled into the Central African Republic, an essentially failed state violently split between Christian and Muslim factions, and then bartered, traded, and sold to Arab businessmen and members of the Sudanese armed forces. It is unclear if the LRA is behind the May poaching, but the culprits—possibly the same Sudanese horse-mounted poachers who killed more than 300 elephants in Cameroon last December—further destabilize the region.

Armed poachers who take advantage of the instability in countries like the Central African Republic undermine a nearly non-existent rule of law and foster cultures of corruption, bribery, and violence that further unravel Africa’s economic boom. Moreover, wildlife trafficking cartels like the Laotian Xaysavang Network that maintain criminal conglomerates spanning Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and China exploit the porous borders of fragile states and contribute to the spread of zoonotic diseases. It is no wonder that at the U.S. Department of State’s November 2012 Partnership Meeting on Wildlife Trafficking, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the illegal trade of wildlife products as “a national security issue, a public health issue, and an economic security issue.” The meeting marked the beginning of the Obama Administration’s aggressive amalgamation of wildlife trafficking with the realities of a post-9/11 world where the Somali al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabaab, poaches elephants to fund terrorism, like its attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall last September.

The Partnership Meeting came two years after Clinton oversaw the State Department’s first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). The QDDR shifted the department’s diplomatic approach towards 21st Century Statecraft, which “addresses new forces propelling change in international relations that are pervasive, disruptive, and difficult to predict.” This includes the syndicates of global wildlife trafficking who feed demand for illegal wildlife products. Curbing this demand can help revitalize Africa’s economic boom and the United States has taken important steps to make this a reality. Last summer, for instance, President Obama issued the Executive Order to Combat Wildlife Trafficking at a joint press conference with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete. U.S. marines were soon in Gabon conducting training exercises with park rangers, and by the end of 2013 the United States had crushed six tons of confiscated ivory. “You cannot and must not mistake our seriousness,” wrote Secretary of State John Kerry in an op-ed about the crush.

In February of this year, the White House also released the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, which takes further measures to curb demand for illegal wildlife products at home and abroad. Its success, and subsequent benefits to African economies, will be determined by cooperation between Washington and Beijing, who represent the two largest markets for illegal wildlife products. While the United States works to curtail demand at home, it is also, as Secretary Clinton stated at the 2012 Partnership Meeting, “reaching beyond governments to enlist the support of people.” This public diplomacy is definitive of 21st Century Statecraft and largely targets China’s growing middle class that is fueling demand for the ornamental ivory products bought and sold in China’s legal ivory markets. One year after the release of Obama’s Executive Order to Combat Wildlife Trafficking, these markets are still legal. However, since then China has crushed six tons of its own confiscated ivory and sent a delegation to the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade.

Sadly, these efforts are not enough. Four rhinos were poached just two weeks ago in Kenya, a country with promising economic outlooks but plagued by violence, corruption, and unrest that makes the procurement of rhino horn more profitable than legal job opportunities. Ending this poaching would improve every sector of society requisite for rebounding Africa’s economic boom and ensuring a brighter, more prosperous future for the continent’s people. Through 21st Century Statecraft, the United States is working to secure this future, but success is entirely dependent on Africans themselves. Earlier this summer, representatives from twelve African countries traveled to the United States to foster greater anti-poaching and anti-trafficking collaboration. The conservation of Africa’s rhinos, elephants, and other endangered species rests on the shoulders of these leaders. So too does the human potential forsaken by the insecurity that the global demand for illegal wildlife products creates.

About the Author

Clint Shoemake is a U.S. Department of State Pickering Fellow currently studying at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he focuses on American foreign policy and African politics. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.

It Still Takes a Network: Defeating the Progeny of al-Qaeda in Iraq

Negotiating East Africa’s Tech Ecosystem