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The US Is Tackling the Wildlife Trade Like the Drug War

The US is making strides this week to fight against wildlife crime.
The Philippine's ivory crush earlier this year, via the US Embassy in Manila

Following a promise to get tough on wildlife trafficking, the US government is trumpeting a pair of initiatives aimed at curbing the worldwide trade in illegal animal parts. But high-profile as the moves are, the question raised by another year of record rhino and elephant poaching is simple: Will they work?

Tomorrow, the Fish and Wildlife Service will crush its six-ton stockpile of seized ivory, which is stored in a secure facility near Denver. The stockpile is the result of 25 years' worth of seizures—the US banned the import and sale of ivory in 1989—and is worth millions. Of course, actually realizing those millions would require selling said ivory, which naturally isn't happening. Instead, FWS is taking the opportunity to roundly demonstrate that killing elephants—and rhinos, tigers, pangolins, and every other poached species—is unacceptable.


If this sounds something like the massively-publicized busts and marijuana burning events that have remained in vogue in the drug war, it's because they're indeed quite similar. In both cases, the market has become so large and widespread that catching every vendor simply isn't feasible. And in both cases, quelling demand and shrinking the market is the most stable long-term solution. By publicizing high-profile busts—or crushing tons of ivory with a steamroller in front of cameras—authorities get the dual benefit of showing potential customers that this is not okay, while also hopefully scaring off some vendors here and there.

If this sounds something like the massively-publicized busts and marijuana burning events that have remained in vogue in the drug war, it's because they're indeed quite similar. 

There's not doubt it's a symbolic move, as the ivory to be crushed wasn't part of the market anyway, and it's not the product of a major, recent bust. Bryan Christy argues in National Geographic that the symbolism is still important because it signifies that the US is fully invested in the anti-poaching fight. Christy takes a good angle on the symbolism of ivory destruction, explaining that after Kenya torched an ivory stockpile in 1989—which set up the worldwide ban—a following destruction of stockpiles worldwide could have gutted the market.

Instead, some countries held on to their ivory, and ended up lobbying for ban-flouting auctions aimed at raising conservation funds. The last such auction, held in 2008, sent more than 100 metric tons of ivory to "accredited traders" in China and Japan. Since that auction, poaching rates have spiked, causing many (including myself) to argue that flooding the market with ivory (or rhino horn, and so on) only stimulates demand, rather than satiate it.


With that in mind, crushing ivory stocks not only serves as a very visual reminder that ivory is illegal, but building momentum to destroy stocks worldwide would help eliminate hoarding and price-inflating speculation that one day ivory might be legal again. If countries could unify behind the destruction of ivory—a statement that it's financially worthless, and will remain so—it could help deflate some of the speculation that has propped up the black market.

Drug seizure photos are used to highlight enforcement efforts, as they are with wildlife crime. But both also serve to highlight the fact that seizures can't catch everything. Via ICE

Of course, the black market remains immense. The wildlife trade is one of the largest illicit trades on Earth, after all. What about the largest? The international drug trade has had more money and enforcement effort thrown at it than anyone can imagine, and yet we still regularly get headlines declaring that drugs are easier to get than, say, soap.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime found that the number of problem drug users worldwide has remained steady, but a worldwide decrease in cocaine use was attributed to declining coca production across the board. Other studies have found that drug education and prevention programs do work. It's a sign that while enforcement efforts alone have been unable to stem the tide, efforts that are comprehensive actually work.


Regardless, enforcement remains a heavy focus in attempting to slow down advanced trafficking networks. In an attempt to break up one of the wildlife trade's larger conduits, the State Department today announced a $1 million bounty for information that could lead to the arrest of the leader of a major Laotian smuggling ring.

The ring, known as the Xaysavang Network, is allegedly led by a Laotian businessman by the name of Vixay Keosavang. The New York Times has had incredible access to Keosavang, who says he's being framed, despite acknowleding the receipt of illegal wildlife parts to his compound. That the US is willing to put down a huge bounty on Keosavang is commendable from an enforcement standpoint—it's also an old drug war standby, one which the US still uses regularly—but the fact that he's managed to avoid arrest in Laos speaks to the corruption that is fueling the Asian side of the trade.

The crusher that Fish and Wildlife will use to smash six tons of ivory, via Flickr

Laos is a poor country rife with corruption, and has well-documented markets for illegal logging, opium, and wildlife parts. But it's hardly alone in creating an environment in which the top dogs in wildlife crime have become essentially untouchable, thanks to corruption and lax enforcement.

The situation is typified by China, which is by far the world's largest consumer of ivory—and which doesn't ban the domestic sale of approved ivory products. Earlier this week, a Chinese official spoke with Xinhua, explaining that he hoped countries worldwide could work together to stop wildlife crime, rather than "pointing fingers." Yet China's semi-legal trade remains one of the world's largest ivory loopholes.

As the official explained, China only allows the legal trade of ivory stockpiles from before it ratified the worldwide ban, as well as ivory won in auctions since. The problem with that, however, is that lackluster enforcement and regulation has left China's ivory markets wide open to ivory laundering. The Chinese forestry ministry has touted the fact that it's seized more than a ton of ivory this year, as well as made more than 100 related arrests, yet the fact that ivory can still be legal in some cases has left enough wiggle room for the trade to flourish.

Combating the wildlife trade simply through enforcement isn't enough. There are simply too many players to arrest everyone. Curbing the trade also means winning on messaging, something that China's semi-legal trade doesn't do. It's not that Chinese consumers don't care about the environment, as the huge decline in shark fin demand has shown. It's politics, and the unwillingness of officials to admit that an uneven playing field makes regulation far harder for everyone, a lesson that's been learned over and over in the drug trade.

The US is making strides this week to fight against wildlife crime, which it is undoubtedly interested in because of the national security angle. But the US crushing ivory, educating citizens, and putting out bounties isn't enough, just as policing narcotics in some place and turning a blind eye in others has left the drug war stuck in a state of perpetuity. To truly quell the trade, it's going to have to get others on board too.