High above the Okavango Delta in Botswana, a plane surveys the land below to identify local elephant populations. The surveyors are met with a gruesome sight: 87 elephants who were recently killed for their valuable ivory.
While poaching has been a problem for years, this recent elephant survey in Botswana shows a drastic increase in the number of elephants being killed in an area that many consider to be one of the last elephant strongholds.
According to Elephants Without Borders, an organization that conducts an elephant census for the Botswana government every four years, there has been a major increase in poaching in the region from previous years. In their 2014 census, the organization reported nine poached elephants. This year, while only halfway through the census, 87 dead have already been found.
According to National Geographic, Botswana is home to more than 130,000 elephants and is one of the few areas that has been able to avoid the recent poaching crisis. Nearly all of the elephants in many of the countries surrounding Botswana have been wiped out. Despite legislation from around the world banning the trade of ivory, demand has remained strong. China, Africa and even the United States are major destination points for illegal ivory.
Many experts have estimated that the illegal trade of ivory is almost 100 times the legal trade, with a value of $264 million over the past decade. Recently, an alarming amount of the illegal ivory trade has been linked to money used to fund terrorist groups and transnational criminal organizations.
Activists and policymakers alike are speaking out on these massacres and the need to protect animals from the dangers of poachers. The alarming rate at which elephants are being killed for their ivory is being attributed by many to a 2014 hunting ban throughout Botswana which resulted in communities losing employment opportunities and potential income from the trophy hunting industry and related tourism services. Experts also attribute the deaths to a recent decision by the Botswana’s president to disarm the anti-poaching game rangers. These decisions often have unintended consequences that result in more poaching than there was before.
To address these problems and try and enact meaningful legislation, the U.S. Congress recently passed the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt (END) Wildlife Trafficking Act. This bill allows prosecutors more discretion when prosecuting traffickers as well as requires the State Department to identify countries that are major sources or consumers of trafficked wildlife. The U.S. State Department is working hard to ensure that local authorities have more tools to assist with prosecuting traffickers who commit these atrocities. Policymakers and wildlife advocacy groups are hopeful that strengthening these programs will help significantly decrease the amount of poaching and trafficking throughout the world.
This legislation also helps facilitate partnerships between the U.S. and other countries in our effort “to disrupt regional and global transnational organized criminal networks and to prevent the illegal wildlife trade from being used as a source of financing for criminal groups that undermine United States and global security interests”, as the bill states.
While the END Wildlife Trafficking Act of 2016 was an important step in the right direction, there is still more work to be done, which is underscored by the recent killings in Botswana. Allowing these atrocities to continue not only impacts the surrounding communities, but also poses a serious global threat as wildlife trafficking continues to fund terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab. This cause is too important to give up the fight.
To learn more about the poaching crisis, read the recent National Geographic article here.