Populations of elephants, which once showed promising signs of recovery, could be at risk due to a recent surge in poaching for the illegal ivory trade. (photo by Oleg Znamenskiy)

Because of heinous actions by poachers who kill one elephant roughly every 15 minutes, the African elephant population has declined by about 20 percent in the last decade. Similarly, one out of every 20 wild rhinos was killed by a poacher in the last year, leaving northern white rhinos at the brink of extinction.

Although international trade in rhino horn has been banned since 1977, demand remains high and fuels rhino poaching in both Africa and Asia. (photo by Johan Swanepoel)

Illicit wildlife trafficking has become so serious it has garnered attention from a range of allies — including the Intelligence Community, Department of Defense, Department of State and even award-winning actor and filmmaker George Clooney, who’s Satellite Sentinel Project uses satellite imagery in hopes of uncovering evidence of these alleged atrocities.

George Clooney’s Satellite Sentinel Project has joined the fight against wildlife trafficking. (photo by Denis Makarenko)

Faced with this unprecedented rise in wildlife crimes around the globe, the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, co-chaired by the Departments of State, Interior and Justice, hosted a symposium at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s William Allder Auditorium in Springfield, Va., June 28–29.

This was the first time the IC has led the Task Force symposium, and the focus was on developing collaborative relationships across government, civil sector, academia, international partners and non-governmental organizations, to identify fundamental geospatial data critical for combating wildlife trafficking and its implications within a human geography framework.

Fewer than 400 Sumatran tigers exist today. (photo by Mark Higgins)

“Wildlife trafficking contributes billions of dollars to the illegal economy, fuels instability and undermines human security,” said Robert Cardillo, NGA’s director. “The 2014 National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking said it best — this is a global challenge requiring global solutions.”

Robert Cardillo welcomes everyone to the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking Symposium. (photo by Brian Murphy, ODNI Public Affairs)

“Wildlife trafficking contributes billions of dollars to the illegal economy, fuels instability and undermines human security.”

- Robert Cardillo

Additionally, the symposium aimed to advance the goals set forth in the Combating Wildlife Trafficking Executive Order and National Strategy Implementation Plan in cooperation with the Intelligence Community, U.S. government, international partners and non-governmental organizations.

The African grey parrot has experienced significant population declines in the wild. (photo by Mikael Damkier)

“We are making wildlife trafficking a priority,” said Daniel Foote, deputy assistant secretary of state, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

“The Intelligence Community’s involvement is critical. Your tools and technology can be applied and intelligence-led law enforcement can help thwart this illicit activity,” Foote added.

“The Intelligence Community’s involvement is critical. Your tools and technology can be applied and intelligence-led law enforcement can help thwart this illicit activity.”

- Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Foote


President Barack Obama, shown during a visit to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence at their Liberty Crossing complex, McLean, Va., created the Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking in 2013. (photo by Brian Murphy, ODNI Public Affairs)

In 2013, President Barack Obama created the Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, bringing together 17 federal departments and agencies to create and implement a national strategy to stop illegal activities that threaten the future survival of a multitude of species, including elephants, rhinos, tigers and a host of other wildlife.

“The entire world has a stake in protecting the world’s iconic animals, and the United States is strongly committed to meeting its obligation to help preserve the Earth’s natural beauty for future generations,” Obama said.

The Intelligence Community’s involvement in this endeavor began shortly thereafter, when the president issued the 2014 National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking.

The National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking and the Task Force’s Implementation Plan center on three objectives: strengthening domestic and global law enforcement, reducing the demand for illegally traded wildlife and expanding international cooperation and commitment.

“The entire world has a stake in protecting the world’s iconic animals, and the United States is strongly committed to meeting its obligation to help preserve the Earth’s natural beauty for future generations.”

- President Barack Obama

DNI James Clapper signs a Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking Symposium poster prior to the start of the two-day event. (photo by Brian Murphy, ODNI Public Affairs)

According to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, although relatively new to this fight, the IC remains dedicated to supporting such an important cause.

“I think we are faced with a clear moral imperative,” he said. “This is not a victimless crime. Lives are at risk, both human and wildlife. It jeopardizes peace and security for the communities in and around hotspots and it fuels the degradation of critical ecosystems.”

Chinese demand for the pangolin, a scale-covered anteater, is forcing the endangered animals closer to extinction. (courtesy photo)

“I think we are faced with a clear moral imperative. This is not a victimless crime. Lives are at risk, both human and wildlife.”

- DNI James Clapper

Clapper also testified on the subject of Combating Wildlife Trafficking during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Feb. 9, and addressed the severity of the situation in his accompanying statement for the record.

“Organized crime and rebel groups in Africa and elsewhere are likely to increase their involvement in wildlife trafficking to fund political activities, enhance political influence and purchase weapons,” he said. “Illicit trade in wildlife, timber and marine resources endangers the environment, threatens good governance and border security in fragile regions and destabilizes communities whose economic well-being depends on wildlife for biodiversity and ecotourism. Increased demand for ivory and rhino horn in East Asia has triggered unprecedented increases in poaching in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Despite laws protecting sea turtles in most countries, illegal trade of eggs, meat and shells continues to be a threat. (photo by Rich Carey)

ODNI’s primary role in combating wildlife trafficking is to enhance coordination among and between enforcement and intelligence agencies, which is one of the reasons why the symposium received such positive feedback from the participants.

Dr. Odean Serrano (third from right) poses for a photo with Clapper and other key leaders involved in the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking symposium. (photo by Brian Murphy, ODNI Public Affairs)

“We had more than 370 participants from more than 160 different organizations attend our symposium,” said Dr. Odean Serrano, who serves as the IC’s lead for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. “It provided an opportunity to bring multiple stakeholders together, to understand and capture everyone’s needs and to identify the most effective way to utilize the data being collected.”

NGA’s Combating Wildlife Trafficking public website. (courtesy image)

NGA’s Combating Wildlife Trafficking public website serves as a portal to share information and fuel the collaborative effort across the community. According to Serrano, with the collection and sharing of data, agencies can begin to fill in gaps to more efficiently target and assist stakeholders’ respective efforts to combat wildlife trafficking.

With the IC providing the map and geospatial data foundation, other entities can join the site to voluntarily add their specialty data which ultimately provides a more complete view, rather than each agency or non-governmental partner working in a vacuum. This effort to integrate and share information will strengthen the IC’s ability to achieve anticipatory analysis, Serrano added.

The Amur leopard is poached largely for its beautiful, spotted fur. (courtesy photo)

“Due to the global nature of this problem, the IC must stress the importance of the topic of convergence as wildlife trafficking intersects multiple national security issues, such as financial and criminal networks, the critical importance of leveraging resources across the IC and our ultimate role — to enable multiple IC missions,” said Terry Ford, ODNI’s national intelligence manager for Africa.

And this is not a new problem. As far back as 2011, ODNI released a Transnational Organized Crime overview that estimated annual costs and revenues generated by environmental crime, to include illegal wildlife trade, at $20-$40 billion annually.

Detail from from a Transnational Organized Crime overview, citing the worldwide cost of environmental crimes, including wildlife trafficking. (Click to view the full graphic.)

The necessity for a collaborative and proactive approach to combat this global challenge by combining efforts to interdict criminal acts, to enforce strict wildlife trafficking penalties and to strengthen international and NGO partnerships to prevent poaching occurrences, were constant themes throughout the symposium.

Daniel Ashe (left) and Daniel Foote address the crowd during the first day of the Combating Wildlife Trafficking Symposium. (photos by Brian Murphy, ODNI Public Affairs)

“The collaboration and opportunities where there is data sharing are examples of capacities playing a critical role in preserving something that is recognizable, well-known, and touches almost everyone — it has much more application to everyone’s lives than they think it does,” said Daniel Ashe, director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

In the 1980s, an estimated 100,000 elephants were killed each year and up to 80 percent of herds were lost in some regions. (photo by Donovan van Staden)

Information provided during the symposium estimated roughly 100,000 elephants were slaughtered for their ivory in Africa during a recent three-year period. Additionally, the poaching of African rhinos has skyrocketed, with 1,175 killed in South Africa in 2015, compared with just 13 in 2007.

An African rhino. (photo by Johan Swanepoel)

The Presidential Task Force understands the urgency of this growing crisis and those involved know what they’re up against.

“Well-armed traffickers exploit porous borders and weak institutions, eroding governance and undermining livelihoods,” Cardillo said.

A century ago, there were roughly 230,000 orangutans, but today the number has dropped to an estimated 45,000–69,000 Bornean and 7,500 Sumatran orangutans. (photo by Sergey Uryadnikov)

“We absolutely can’t afford to see entire species wiped off this planet because we failed to effectively work together here at home and with our international partners.”

- DNI James Clapper

The good news is that progress is being made due to concerted efforts by the international community:

  • There are now broad federal restrictions on the U.S. domestic trade in African elephant ivory.
  • China has an agreement to enact import/export bans on ivory.
  • A collective effort was also instrumental in influencing the United Nations General Assembly to approve its first-ever resolution on wildlife trafficking.
Clapper testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Feb. 9. (photo by Brian Murphy, ODNI Public Affairs)

While there is still plenty left to be done, Clapper said he is extremely heartened by the work already accomplished by the Combating Wildlife Trafficking community, “We absolutely can’t afford to see entire species wiped off this planet because we failed to effectively work together here at home and with our international partners.”

The African elephant population has declined by about 20 percent over the last decade. (photo by Lara Zanarini)
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