A day before federal wildlife officials are set to send a message to poachers by destroying six tons of ivory, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced a $1-million reward program to combat the illegal wildlife trafficking trade.
The United States is prepared to pay up to $1 million for information leading to the dismantling of the Laos-based Xaysavang Network, considered one of the world’s most prolific organized crime groups trafficking wildlife, Kerry said.
The group has affiliates in Africa and Asia,, where skyrocketing demand for ivory and rhino horns in Vietnam and China have spawned a resurgence in illicit wildlife trafficking.
The gang has been linked to several major seizures of illegal wildlife products, including elephant ivory and rhino horns, as well as other endangered species animals, according to U.S. State Department officials.
“The involvement of sophisticated transnational criminal organizations in wildlife trafficking perpetuates corruption, threatens the rule of law and border security in fragile regions, and destabilizes communities that depend on wildlife for biodiversity and eco-tourism,” Kerry said. “Profits from wildlife trafficking, estimated at $8-10 billion per year, fund other illicit activities such as narcotics, arms and human trafficking.”
Poachers have become smarter, and better equipped as they span the African savannah in search of the trophies.
U.S. intelligence agencies also have linked revenues from illegal ivory to terrorists groups, according to former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who announced a campaign with daughter Chelsea to save Africa’s elephants from extinction.On Thursday, the U.S. plans to destroy a 25-year stockpile of confiscated ivory that it has been warehousing near Denver. The ivory, worth millions on the black market, will be fed into a rock-crushing machine. By grinding the ivory, U.S. authorities hope to send a message to poachers and transnational crime organizations that the illicit gains have no value.
The U.S. also hopes to encourage other countries like Kenya, which has close to 100 tons of currently under lock and key, to follow suit. Twice in recent history Kenya has burned ivory. But the destruction of ivory remains controversial, even as conservation groups like the African Wildlife Foundation join in urging countries to do so.
“Destroying all stockpiled ivory and implementing domestic moratoria on ivory trade will send a message to buyers, traffickers, and suppliers of ivory that it is no longer a tradable commodity,” the conservation group said Wednesday. “It will remove the economic incentives that drive poaching and prevent illegal ivory from being trafficked under cover of the legalized trade—in effect wiping out the illicit ivory marketplace.”
Kenya has said destroying its stockpile isn’t a top priority. However, stopping poaching syndicates, which are pushing Africa’s elephants and rhinos to the brink of extinction is, officials say.
“We have to get ivory out of trade so that we can better identify and take enforcement actions against illicit trade,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said recently at a briefing by President’s Task Force on Combating Wildlife Trafficking.
The Obama administration moved to add the southern white rhino — the last rhino not protected — to the U.S. endangered species list this past summer.
It also has committed to intensify training of African game officers and promote an anti-poaching campaign in the United States.
Obama also issued an executive order establishing a Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, which said the killing of protected species and trafficking was an escalating “international crisis.”
“We need to reduce demand for these illicit products,” Ashe said. “And we need to do that here at home, and we need to that in conjunction with our foreign partners in countries like China and Thailand and Vietnam and the countries where we’re seeing these large and growing demands for these products.”
While ivory is considered ‘white gold,” rhino horn is considered more valuable than gold. It sells for close to $30,000 a pound — as much as $390,000 for the horns of a single white rhino — on the black market. In Vietnam, many believe that powder from rhino horns – made out of the same material as fingernails – cures cancer and other ailments, beliefs scientists dispute.
The United States is the second-largest consumer of illegally trafficked wildlife products, said Robert Dreher, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources. For instance, Miami, with its proximity to Latin America, has been considered a busy port for entry of wildlife such as venomous reptiles, exotic birds, even tigers, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The legislation governing the newly announced rewards program is the Department of State Rewards Program Update and Technical Corrections Act of 2012. It was one of the last legislations sponsored by Kerry as a senator. It was signed by Obama and became law Jan. 15, while Kerry awaited confirmation.
Anyone with information on the members of the Xaysavang Network or illegal activities are being asked to contact the rewards hotline in Laos at +856 21 219565 and/or by email at TOCRP-Xaysavang@state.gov. All communications are strictly confidential. Rewards and amounts will be considered on a case-by-case basis, according to the State Department.