An elephant in Tanzania. The United States Congress recently moved along legislation that would designate wildlife trafficking as a serious crime. Photo by: sama093 / CC BY-NC

Last week Nepal marked two years since a poacher last killed a rhino. The government attributes its success against poaching to a coordinated national response including enhanced protection efforts from park authorities, data collection and analysis using the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool, and partnerships between conservation organizations, the military and local communities. Ultimately it was a strong political will that made it possible to implement this response to a global trade that generates $10 billion a year.

“It’s certainly a complex problem, but at the root of the poaching crisis is a simple economic fact: The trade in ivory, rhino horn and other wildlife products is hugely profitable,” Andrew Harmon, communications director at the San Francisco-based organization WildAid, told Devex.

While powerful international syndicates control the industry, many poachers come from abject poverty, which has led to increasing collaboration between what some might consider unlikely partners from the defense, law enforcement, conservation and development communities.

The United States Congress recently moved along legislation that would designate wildlife trafficking as a serious crime, on par with weapons and drugs, in an effort to take down the criminal networks that facilitate the illegal killing and transportation of wildlife. On April 28, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the Global Anti-Poaching Act out of committee, which put the bill one step closer to becoming law.

“My bipartisan bill will prod our bureaucracy to better support partner governments on the frontlines of the fight to save these animals,” Representative Ed Royce, the California Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote in an email to Devex. “And it will hold offending countries — corrupt governments who are tolerating and even actively poaching and trafficking — accountable.”

When Royce led a delegation of government officials and conservation groups to Arusha, Tanzania, in January, he saw how the war on poaching has drawn a range of combatants, including personnel from the U.S. Department of Defense, who are helping build capacity among park rangers.

The Endangered Ecosystems of Northern Tanzania project, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, brings together some of these partners to work on interventions that might not seem like traditional anti-poaching efforts. For example, the program works on revenue diversification in an effort to help improve the livelihoods of subsistence farmers so they don’t partner with poachers to hunt the elephants that come onto their land. In that effort the Honeyguide Foundation works in partnership with organizations like Pathfinder, an organization focused on sexual and reproductive health, and Carbon Tanzania, which sells forest carbon offsets.

USAID is engaging in anti-poaching efforts because of the way this black market undermines security rule of law, and efforts to address poverty. It’s doing so by supporting training and tools to improve conservation patrols, public-private partnerships with travel, hospitality, and transportation sectors, and new initiatives such as the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge.

“The key to save elephants is to think about many strategies all at once. We work in a complex social, economic and environmental system and our solutions must address many aspects of this complex system if we hope to be successful,” said Matt Brown, Africa conservation director for The Nature Conservancy.

Technological interventions, such as surveillance drones tracking the movement of endangered animals and criminal factions, are having promising results on the ground. For example, mapping software from Fulcrum shows not only the locations of slain elephants and tire tracks, but also the sources and destinations of ivory, which helps users map out connections between sellers, buyers, traders and smugglers.

“Technology can improve communication, foster global connections, and aid in strategic preservation planning, but it alone cannot reduce the demand for ivory without a coordinated effort and manpower from multiple organizations, locals, and government,” Anthony Quartararo, CEO of Spatial Networks and Fulcrum Mobile Solutions, told Devex.

Addressing illegal wildlife trade at the national level has primarily been the responsibility of wildlife departments, Richard Thomas of the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC told Devex. There needs to be greater coordination not just among a variety of actors but interagency coordination within countries including between criminal justice and financial departments or through interagency wildlife crime bureaus, he added.

Beyond the direct impact Global Anti-Poaching Act could have on the ground if passed, it could also send a signal to other governments that a range of responses are required across sectors to stop wildlife poaching in its tracks.

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.