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Fighting Poaching Fights Terrorism

By Frank E. Waliczek

Africa is home to a growing number of terrorist organizations seeking expansion funds, as well as to a dwindling number of the world’s most endangered animals. Asia, namely Vietnam and China, offers a substantial black market of eager buyers willing to pay top-dollar for the body parts of these animals. The body parts, such as a rhinoceros horn, are purchased for use as decorative trinkets and “cures” for cancers, hangovers, and impotence. Terrorist organizations, including the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Boko Haram, and al Qaeda-affiliate al Shabaab, have capitalized on the opportunity to exploit this $23 billion market. Poaching and trafficking of endangered megafauna is not only a biological tragedy, but also a direct source of funding for terrorist organizations, and thus threatens the national security of the United States.

The funds for the groups trafficking these species continue to grow, as do their recruitment and expansion abilities, and the threat of losing these species forever looms closer. Threatened and endangered species, including all species of rhinoceros, are protected under both U.S. and international law. However, poaching and trafficking occur without regard for international or cultural borders, often involving foreign corruption, bribery, and outdated traditions. This requires U.S. lawmakers and agencies to work with foreign governments, businesses, and non-governmental organizations to protect national security through concerted efforts abroad and at home. However, insufficient penal deterrents and public awareness have proven problematic for combating the issue.

The illegal wildlife trade is the fourth-largest global underground market—outdone only by narcotics, arms, and human trafficking. The trade generates up to $23 billion in annual revenue on the black market, while also accounting for a significant portion of extremist funding. Comprised of keratin (the main structural component of a human fingernail) and weighing up to eight pounds, a typical rhinoceros horn can be sold for up to $130,000 per pound making the ever-decreasing population of rhinoceros and their coveted horns more valuable than gold.

There are roughly seven tiers in the kill-to-customer poaching process of the illegal wildlife trade. The process begins with the killing of an endangered species (e.g., a black rhinoceros). The poachers engaged in the initial physical killing tend to range from impoverished and opportunistic locals to adolescent or adult members of terrorist organizations, and professional contractors or rogue military officers. The animal’s valued body parts (e.g., the horns) are then severed from its carcass and transported from the kill-site through a well-established smuggling route.

This route weaves its way through five of the world’s least stable nations, promising a fertile bed of extremist recruitment. These groups then use various trafficking methods, including simple briberies or complex transnational shipments, to smuggle the parts into Asia to be purchased by merchants. In subsequent transactions, the parts are converted into thousand-dollar chopsticks and sold to the wealthy class, or crushed into a fine powder and sold to desperate patients seeking cures in outdated medicinal myths.

Traffickers often attempt to import and export these illicit products across U.S. state and international borders, providing law enforcement with the opportunity to combat the illegal wildlife trade from our own soil. In 2013, President Obama issued an executive order for combating wildlife trafficking, which created the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking. The Task Force, comprised of experts from seventeen federal agencies,  developed the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, which provided three priorities for the mission: strengthening domestic and international law enforcement, reducing demand for the illicit commodity, and building global partnerships.

In 2017, President Trump issued an executive order that emphasized the dangers of transnational criminal organizations engaged in wildlife trafficking to U.S. national security. The order stressed the importance of prosecuting wildlife traffickers, as suggested by President Obama’s E.O., and sought to increase the enforcement strength to combat trafficking. The Department of Justice, relying on the Environment and Natural Resources Division as its core litigator in the fight, depends heavily on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Lacey Act to prosecute persons in the U.S. engaged in wildlife crimes.

The Lacey Act, passed in 1900 as the United States’ first wildlife protection law,  makes it illegal for any person to “import, export, sell, acquire, or purchase fish, wildlife or plants that are taken, possessed, transported, or sold” in violation of state or federal law. The ESA establishes a national program for the listing and conservation of threatened and endangered species, while also making it unlawful for any person to take, import, export, possess, sell, transport, or ship any endangered species, in any way.

These Acts have been notably successful when applied through the multi-agency investigation known as “Operation Crash,” which, since it began in 2012, has resulted in the seizure of millions of dollars and more than thirty convictions. A “crash” is the term used to describe a group of rhinoceros, and this continuing nationwide crackdown, led by the Fish and Wildlife Service, focuses on charging those involved in the illicit rhino horn trade with violations of the ESA and Lacey Act, conspiracy, smuggling, international money laundering, bribery, and false documents, among others.

Involvement in the trade varies from smuggling efforts to roles played in illegal hunts. Those prosecuted include buyers, traffickers, hunters, rogue military officers, and members of both domestic and transnational organized crime syndicates. The most recent example of Operation Crash’s success occurred in September of 2017 when U.S. citizen Edward Levine was convicted for violating the Lacey Act and conspiracy to violate the ESA and Lacey Act. Mr. Levine was arrested in 2014 after transporting two Black Rhinoceros horns across California state lines and selling them to undercover agents for a total of $55,000. In an earlier case, a New York antique dealer was sentenced to thirty-seven months in prison for conspiracy to smuggle rhinoceros horns carved into “libation cups.” The typical sentencing of these wildlife crimes has varied from between five and seventy months of incarceration and a forfeiture of all proceeds earned.

The decreasing rhinoceros populations are just one example of the hundreds of fauna species threatened by the illegal wildlife trade today. Many rather unknown, but drastically important, species, including the pangolin, red panda, and giraffe, are being seized, killed, packaged, and transported across the globe. The continued trafficking of these species is certain to lead to extinction, which will not only devastate ecosystems and economies around the world but also continue to fund extremist organizations at a dangerous rate.

The U.S. has taken positive steps in combating these domestic threats to preserve the planet’s natural beauty for our future generations, but it is imperative that the focus shift to the international battle. The training of foreign forces, regulating commercial trade bans, increased criminal penalties, and concentrated joint-undercover efforts along the smuggling routes provide promising opportunities to significantly interrupt and reduce the cash-flow to terrorist organizations in Africa.


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