It’s no secret that I absolutely love Africa. It is a place that has gotten into my soul and calls for me to return and explore it further. It is a true place of adventure, with wild places, wonderful cultures and the most amazing displays of wildlife that you’ll find anywhere on the planet. But two of my favorite species, elephants and rhinos, are being slaughtered by the thousands as poachers look to harvest their tusks and horns to be sold on the black market in Asia. Some of the stories I’ve heard about how these animals are treated are simply horrific, and when ever possible I try to shine a light on the topic in hopes of making more people aware of what is happening.
Last week, the battle against these poachers took an unexpected turn when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that she, and President Obama, were instructing the U.S. intelligence community to turn their formidable skills towards helping fight these actions. In a meeting with conservationists, ambassadors and other world leaders, Clinton called for the creation of a new, unified global strategy to combat poaching, which has grown into a big business thanks to the demand for ivory and rhino hors, which are used in traditional medicines in China and other Asian countries. She also pledged $100,000 to help fund a new enforcement initiative as well.
Because these black market activities are international in scope, crossing numerous borders and spread out across multiple continents, employing U.S. intelligence assets seems like a good idea. Bringing the CIA and NSA into the fight signals two things, first the U.S. is finally getting serious about ending poaching and secondly, the Obama administration must see the illegal hunting and harvesting of these animals as a potential threat to the security of U.S. interests abroad. Considering the fact that many of the poachers are rebels or rogue militias who sell ivory and other illegal goods to fund their campaigns against local governments, it is easy to see how someone could make that leap.
While I’m happy to see that the U.S. putting its vast intelligence network to use, I would have liked to have seen more than $100,000 pledged to help creating this new “global strategy” for ending illegal poaching. That’s barely a drop in the bucket compared to how we often spend our international aid money, and the poachers themselves pull in more than that from the sale of a few tusks or rhino horns. Because they are making so much cash, these outlaws now come armed with advanced weaponry and often go hunting for their prey from helicopters. If local anti-poaching units are going to be able to fight back, they need to be better armed, equipped and trained themselves. Something that requires yet more funding.
Still, this is at least a start and I acknowledge that it is a good thing that the U.S. government has decided to take a stand on this incredibly important issue. Elephants and rhinos are being killed off at an alarming rate and it has gotten so bad that they are now extinct in certain parts of Africa. To give you an idea of just how awful this situation has gotten, the Washington Post estimates that more than 10,000 elephants are killed in Tanzania alone each year. That’s a scary number for sure.
Perhaps I’m more sensitive to this topic than others as I have seen these animals up close in the wild. On one of my visits to Kruger National Park in South Africa last year, I came across a large breeding heard of elephants wandering through the wilderness. My companions and I sat and watched them wander past us, enjoying the way they interacted with one another in a playful and loving way. Elephants are extremely intelligent creatures who greet each other, care for one another and even mourn the loss of those that are close to them. Seeing it in person makes that a very personal experience that is hard to convey but remains very powerful none the less.
It will be interesting to see where these new efforts go and how U.S. intelligence assets can assist in ending the poaching. Hopefully they’ll not only be able to track shipments of ivory and rhino horns, preventing them from reaching buyers in Asia, but also perhaps locate those buyers themselves. The only way to truly end the illegal trade of these goods, in my opinion, is to stamp out demand.
Perhaps we need to do a little poaching of our own.