To Save Wildlife, Call an Economist (and maybe Hillary Clinton)

Today I learned something disturbing: the United States is the second-largest destination market for smuggled wildlife products. That means that I live in a country with a high demand for poached rhino horns and elephant tusks. Bear organs and big cat skins. Animal bones, wild meat, monkeys, and rare birds.

Killing and transporting animals and their parts to consumers around the world is a criminal activity worth billions of dollars every year. According to the State Department, only the black markets for weapons and drugs are larger than the illegal wildlife trade. Ivory, they report, fetches nearly $1,000 per pound. At $30,000 per pound, rhinoceros horns are “literally worth their weight in gold.”

On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that the State Department is taking a firm stand on this issue. Wildlife poaching and trafficking is, she said, “stealing from the next generation.” But her plan is not to appeal simply to the noble goals of protecting habitats and conserving species. Instead, as Clinton put it at a meeting of the international Wildlife Trafficking Partnership: “protecting wildlife is…a national security issue, a public health issue, and an economic security issue.”

Of course for conservation groups and endangered animals themselves this was a robust and welcome new focus on a devastating issue. But what really caught our eye was the interdisciplinary and integrated response the State department has come up with – and the term Clinton used to describe it. She called it “holistic.” This is a term you increasingly hear in medicine. Although it can have alternative or New Age-y connotations, a holistic approach is by definition collaborative. It requires looking at relationships across separate parts. It demands conversations, creativity, and in this case a species-spanning approach.

Clinton put it like this: Whether you love animals, see it as a matter of national and global security, believe it will improve public health, or think it will help local and international economies by stamping out corrupt trade, the Wildlife Trafficking partnership has “something for everyone.” She continued:

“Therefore, we need governments, civil society, businesses, scientists, and activists to come together to educate people about the harms of wildlife trafficking. We need law enforcement personnel to prevent poachers from preying on wildlife. We need trade experts to track the movement of goods and help enforce existing trade laws. We need finance experts to study and help undermine the black markets that deal in wildlife. And most importantly, perhaps, we need to reach individuals, to convince them to make the right choices about the goods they purchase.”

I would just add one other group: we need physicians, veterinarians, and ecologists to look after the shared health of people, animals, and habitats at risk from trafficking.

What would a government initiative be without a multi-pronged strategy? The wildlife trafficking partnership has four main parts. It’s worth hearing the speech in Clinton’s voice, which you can do here, but this was the jist:

Prong #1: Diplomacy. Clinton said she will be working with world leaders to get them to agree that wildlife trafficking is a big problem. (Vladimir Putin got a personal shout-out for his leadership in conserving Siberian tigers.) Clinton added that she and President Obama would “personally bring” the message to heads of Asian governments at the East Asia Summit they’re attending together in Phnom Penh next week. She praised the work her department has done with New Zealand on establishing the largest marine protected region in the world: the Ross Sea area. And she named three new science envoys who will work with the State Department by speaking about their fields around the world: “Dr. Bernard Amadei of the University of Colorado, the founder of Engineers Without Borders; Dr. Susan Hockfield, the former president and currently faculty member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and renowned evolutionary biologist Dr. Barbara Schaal of Washington University in St. Louis.”

Prong #2: Public Diplomacy. The State Department and their partners plan to “reach beyond government” to educate and enlist interest around the problem. Their “global outreach” will include Facebook and Twitter campaigns as well as events at embassies around the world on December 4—Wildlife Conservation Day. Clinton said the message will be to “make buying goods, products from trafficked wildlife, endangered species unacceptable, socially unacceptable. We want friends to tell friends they don’t want friends who ingest, display, or otherwise use products that come from endangered species anywhere in the world.”

Prong #3: Crime Fighting and Enforcement. Through programs like the USAID-funded ARREST (Asia’s Regional Response to Endangered Species Trafficking), Clinton said she will beef up ways to go after poachers and the syndicates that deal in wildlife products. (According to their website, ARREST is “a five-year program implemented by FREELAND Foundation…fighting trafficking in illegal wildlife in Asia in three ways: reducing consumer demand; strengthening law enforcement; and strengthening regional cooperation and anti-trafficking networks.”)

Prong #4: Information-Sharing. Clinton said she would be encouraging many different countries to share  information about individual poachers and what she called the global “criminal gangs” that create supply and demand for animal parts. (To this end, Clinton said she’s asked the intelligence community to prepare an assessment of the level of illegal trafficking and penetration of criminal gangs around the world so that the State Department can see “what we’re up against.”)

It may seem a bit sad that protecting animals for their own sakes isn’t enough. But I like Secretary Clinton’s interdisciplinary plan. If the end result is conservation, I agree with her way of getting there: “Let’s put the poachers out of business.”

Rhino image: By Angela Sevin from SF Bay Area, US (Rhino relaxing) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Let’s not forget the main reason many people poach–as a source of income. Studies have shown that in general, people with the lowest incomes tend to do more poaching. As part of a comprehensive approach to poaching, we also need to find ways to enhance the income of poachers in ways that don’t involve poaching.

    Although this will not be easy to do, ignoring economic realities would seriously impede our efforts to stop poaching.

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