Posted by: Larry Socha, Consular Officer
The television series Planet Earth brought stunning images of the natural world into people’s homes in 2006. The series, a coproduction of several broadcasting corporations including the Discovery Channel in the United States, highlighted the incredible diversity of the planet from the smallest sea corals to the most majestic African elephants. I caught a rebroadcast of one of the episodes just recently and was reminded of the fascinating camerawork of the program. I still haven’t figured out how you get a camera inside a pitcher plant. However, I was also reminded of the fragility of our natural environment, a reality the United States commemorates today in celebrating Wildlife Conservation Day.
Wildlife trafficking continues to push protected and endangered species to the brink of extinction. For example, the killing of elephants for their ivory has reached crisis proportions. Based on seizure data, it is estimated that at least 25,000 African elephants were poached last year. African elephants in the wild today number less than one fourth their population 30 years ago. Increasingly, wildlife trafficking is intertwined with organized criminal networks that undermine national security and economic prosperity. Criminals who deliberately cross international borders, violate national laws, and attempt to corrupt government officials are a serious threat to the stability, economy, and natural resources of a country. Additionally, wildlife trafficking can pose a public health risk. Approximately 75% of recently emerging infectious diseases – such as SARS, avian influenza, and the Ebola virus – are of animal origin. The illegal trade in live animals and their parts bypasses public health controls and puts human populations at risk for disease.
Wildlife Conservation Day is a call to action. Wildlife trafficking is an issue of global dimension, affecting every region. While African-Asian trade may often dominate the headlines, the United States recognizes that it is the second largest destination for illegal wildlife. If we are part of the problem, we must be part of the solution. The United States is working with the international community to educate the public, collaborate on wildlife criminal investigations and prosecutions, and share law enforcement information. USAID has provided $1.3 million to INTERPOL’s Project PREDATOR, an initiative designed to support countries in their governance and rule of law with respect to the conservation of wild tigers. The project convenes high level police, customs, and wildlife enforcement seminars and encourages the use of modern intelligence-led enforcement practices to maintain the rule of law. In September, Secretary Clinton focused on the need to combat wildlife trafficking at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Vladivostok, Russia. Her strong position against this illicit trade served as a platform for further discussions during President Obama’s historic trip to Cambodia and the East Asia Summit last month.
Today, on Wildlife Conservation Day, we reaffirm our commitment in cooperation with partner governments, NGOs, and the private sector to combat wildlife trafficking and cut consumer demand for products derived from endangered species. I am again reminded of those images from Planet Earth, specifically the snowy forests of southern Russia that don’t look too different than Nivky Park will probably look next week. 20 Amur leopards call those forests home. Yes, it is estimated only 20 of these cold weather cats remain in the wild. Human destruction of their habitat and poaching pose an immediate threat to their survival. It is our collective responsibility to reverse this trend.