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When most people think of wildlife poaching, they might picture violence against animals worlds away. But the consequences reach far beyond herds of elephants in Africa.
Lawmakers and wildlife experts will gather Thursday in Washington to discuss ways to curb poaching in Africa, including limiting demand for products like ivory and rhinoceros horns in the United States, China and elsewhere. The White House calls the sprawling market for threatened wildlife an international crisis.
"Poaching just escalated literally overnight," said Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund and one of four experts testifying at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
Just one sobering statistic: More than 1,200 rhinos will be poached in South Africa this year, Hemley told NBC News, compared to the 13 that were illegally killed in 2007.
So why should Washington and Americans care?
Animal rights and the environment
Elephants, which are poached for ivory, and rhinos, which are poached for horns, are often at the forefront of conservation campaigns. But other animals are poached, too, including tigers for their skins and sharks for their fins.
Fewer than 3,500 tigers are left in the wild, said Kelly Aylward, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Washington office director.
The steady march to extinction faced by species around the world will expand outward, Aylward said, as endangered animals often play key roles in their ecosystems. For example, elephants eat brush, preventing it from overgrowing, and their excrement fertilizes the soil.
The rise of poaching “doesn't bode well for the future — how those interactive ecosystems will work without key species,” Aylward said.
Safety and security
Cash-starved terrorist organizations have turned to trading ivory, which the Elephant League has dubbed “the white gold of jihad.” The illegal wildlife trade nets $8 billion to $10 billion a year in all, according to the WWF.
A Global Financial Integrity report found that terrorist groups like the Rwandan Democratic Liberation Forces, which led the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s, and al Shabaab, responsible for the 2013 siege of a mall in Kenya, use huge profits from the ivory trade to pay for their violence.
And the money from ivory that isn’t being funneled to the terrorist groups is destabilizing African countries by fostering government corruption, Hemley said.
“The value of the products from rhino horns and ivory is so great that there’s a huge incentive to get involved,” Hemley said.
Widespread corruption keeps away foreign investment and makes finding a legitimate livelihood difficult for many poachers, Aylward said.
To make matters worse, many African countries depend on wildlife to attract tourists.
When Obama visited Tanzania in 2013, he said wildlife is “inseparable from Africa’s identity and prosperity.” The country, where many people work in tourism and national parks, announced in June that 60 percent of its elephant population has been lost, Hemley said.
The consumer effect
Lawmakers in Thursday’s hearing hope to get a better idea of where and how to allot money to fight wildlife poaching. But everyday people can also do their part.
It's illegal to import ivory in the United States but legal to buy it. “We are pushing the government to close that loophole to really stem the demand within our own market,” Hemley said.
And sellers often falsely market illegally imported ivory as antique. If Americans stop buying ivory, other countries — including China, which has the biggest market — will follow suit, Aylward said.
“Being a consumer in the U.S. is actually a very powerful position to be in,” she said. “In this global world, what Americans think about (ivory) could reflect on other cultures and likewise.”
Elephant tusks — the ivory from which is often used in musical instruments or jewelry and carved into trinkets — may have once been a symbol of “prestige and honor,” but that perception needs to change, Aylward said.
Americans have the ability to stem the horrific environmental, economic, and safety effects of wildlife poaching if they “simply don’t buy ivory,” Hemley said. “We can’t point the finger unless we clean up our own act.”