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Top Spy Agencies Help Break Wildlife Trafficking Rings

Image: Malawi poached ivory

An official holds a poached ivory tusk from an elephant in front of four tones of contraband ivory which have been gathered in front of the parliament building on Lilongwe, Malawi on April 2. The ivory was valued at $7.5 million. ERICO WAGA / EPA

Call them the spies who love elephants (or rhinos or tigers).

The top spy agencies in the U.S. are sharing intelligence and personnel to bust international wildlife trafficking rings, which rake in more than $20 billion a year in the trade of everything from elephant ivory and rhino horn to the bladders of a Mexican fish.

Without intelligence of the sort used to fight drug and sex traffickers, according to experts, some of the planet's most iconic creatures face extinction.

"We didn't have the same resources to fight this trade that other agencies had," Edward Grace, the deputy chief of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said. "That is a gap we are filling in now."

The filler comes with a top-down executive order from the Obama administration that frames wildlife trafficking as a threat to national security and calls for a coordinated, whole-government approach to thwart it. The move is intended to keep pace with the changing face of wildlife crime from duck hunters in Louisiana who shoot too many birds to organized, trans-boundary criminal gangs, Grace explained.

A key strength of the government's recently released wildlife trafficking combat plan is the mandate for cooperation between agencies such as the FBI and DEA with the Fish and Wildlife Service, according to Crawford Allan, a wildlife trafficking expert with Traffic, a program of the World Wildlife Fund.

"With time, they will start to draw threads together that will knit together a picture of how wildlife trafficking fits within the wider nexus of security and organized crime," he said.

To start making the connections, for the first time in its history, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has begun stationing agents in key source countries of wildlife contraband. One is already in Thailand. Agents will soon deploy to Tanzania, Botswana, and Peru. The officers are a public face of the intelligence gathering apparatus, working through diplomatic channels to stop trafficking.

Tracing Ivory DNA

Meanwhile, intelligence gathering continues behind the scenes in places such as a lab at the University of Washington in Seattle. There, conservation biologist Samuel Wasser analyzes DNA from seized elephant ivory to determine its place of origin. As the trade has increased, so too has the amount of ivory that flows into his lab, which is funded in part by the U.S. Department of State.

"The goal of this intelligence task is to figure out how many hotspots are there in Africa where the big organized crime rings are operating and taking out really huge amounts of ivory," he explained. More than 20,000 African elephants have been killed per year since 2010.

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The analyses reveal that the majority of the African elephant ivory, which sells for about $1,500 a pound on the black market, comes from two regions – the southern part of East Africa and one area in the western part of Central Africa.

"That doesn't mean that poaching isn't happening everywhere in Africa, but it means the places where most of the stuff is moving are way, way, way more limited than we thought and if we take out those two areas, we could probably take out the lion's share of the trade," Wasser said.

Complementary efforts at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington on how ivory moves out of Africa are reaching a similar conclusion – it often moves through the same places, according to a recent report from the non-profit, which studies conflict and security issues around the world.

Taken together, Wasser said, what once seemed like an intractable problem looks like one where coordinated, focused efforts can have "tremendous impact."

Agents Needed

The coordinated effort to combat wildlife trafficking comes with a need for more agents with wildlife-specific training.

"If you find a bag of cocaine, you pretty much know that it is illegal wherever you are in the world," Allan explained. "If you find an ivory carving, you need to be very clear on where that thing came from, how it entered the country, what circumstances. Is it being sold, traded, trafficked or is it just a personal possession?"

Members of the small, but growing, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement have that training, noted Grace, and a thrust behind their international deployments is to help train their counterparts as they work to gain the trust of personnel in countries where law enforcement is riddled with corruption.

"The only way you can obtain that level of trust is really by working with people on a face-to-face basis," he said. "You learn pretty quickly who you can trust and who you can't trust."