Byline: Veronica Varekova and USN Rear Adm. Don Loren (ret.)
What brings together an international supermodel who is a goodwill ambassador for the African Wildlife Foundation and a retired admiral of the United States Navy. Answer: the campaign to stop international wildlife crime. While our professional and personal backgrounds diverge in nearly every way, we are united by a common belief that the tragic spike in wildlife poaching and trading must be put to an end. We also share a belief that the complex nature of wildlife crime requires a broad-based and committed coalition of actors who must work together in aggressive and creative ways to turn the tide against this growing threat.
Last week on Capitol Hill, we joined a diverse group of leaders from Congress, the State Department, the NGO community and other sectors to shine a light on the crisis that the global community faces from the meteoric rise of wildlife crime in recent years. The illegal poaching and trade of ivory and rhino horn, as well as other wildlife products, has exploded over the last decade, creating an illicit trade in wildlife that is now valued at up to $10 billion per year. The victims of these crimes are many.First and foremost, wildlife crime poses an existential threat to animal species, and at the current rate of poaching there will be no rhino and elephant populations to speak of on the African continent in the coming years. Wildlife crime is also destabilizing communities, countries and whole regions throughout Africa. Criminal and extremist organizations profit from the trade as a tool to fuel their violence and to expand their sphere of influence. Local communities are losing their vital wildlife habitats and the underlying eco-tourism economies that are vital to many African countries.
We were honored to stand beside House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and a group of bipartisan members of Congress to celebrate the recent introduction of the Global Anti-Poaching Act (H.R. 2494). This legislation, which was passed out of the Foreign Affairs Committee last month, would significantly enhance the U.S. government’s efforts to combat wildlife crime in close coordination with our international partners and allies.
Specifically, the bill would increase the criminal penalties for perpetrators of wildlife trafficking, by putting these crimes in the same category as weapons trafficking and drug trafficking, making it a liable offense for money laundering and racketeering. The bill also helps the United States and partner countries counter the terrorist organizations, rebel groups, and international criminal syndicates that are profiting from international wildlife trafficking. Under the mandates of the legislation, the U.S. will increase cooperation efforts designed to support the professionalization of partner countries’ wildlife law enforcement rangers on the front lines of the fight against poachers, who are often armed with night-vision goggles, heavy weaponry, and even helicopters.
Royce was joined by other leaders in Congress, including Reps. Ted Poe (R-Texas), Kay Granger (R-Texas), Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), Bill Keating (D-Mass.) and Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), all of whom are helping to ensure that the U.S. government maximizes its efforts to support our partners in Africa and to combat the wildlife traffickers. We urge other members of Congress to lead on this issue, to cosponsor Chairman Royce’s legislation and to stand against the criminals and terrorists who are perpetrating these terrible crimes.
President Obama and his administration also deserve strong praise for the leadership they have exhibited over the last few years through the creation of the White House task force and strategy to combat wildlife crime. The State Department, USAID, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Defense and many other government agencies and offices have come together to develop and implement an interagency plan to counter wildlife crime in coordination with Chairman Royce and other bipartisan leaders in Congress.
We were also joined last week by several African ambassadors who reminded us that their governments and civil society organizations must be in the lead as we look for ways to partner and support their efforts to protect their lands and wildlife. These governments and their people have the most at stake in this fight against the wildlife traffickers, and we are seeing increasing conviction from African leaders to work together to tackle this growing challenge at both a country and regional level.
Wildlife crime is an atrocity that stands in stark contrast to our moral values, and it poses a significant security risk to the U.S. and our partners and allies. What we witnessed yesterday is a shared commitment across sectors and party lines to come together and put a stop to these heinous acts, and to restore dignity and justice to the treasured habitats and communities in Africa where these crimes are taking place.
Varekova is an international supermodel and serves as a goodwill ambassador for the African Wildlife Foundation.
Loren is a retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral, who formerly served as the deputy director of the U.S. Counter-Terrorism Center and as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Homeland Security Integration.