U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Associate Director Teresa Christopher, Chief of Law Enforcement William Woody, and Special Agent in Charge David Hubbard, visit Sudanese National Police HQ in Khartoum, Sudan, to discuss potential cooperation on combating wildlife trafficking.
Shortly after arriving in Sudan, I quickly noticed that the Sudanese bills have images of many of Africa’s iconic species – elephants, rhinos, giraffes and Cape buffalo – yet many of these species are disappearing at alarming rates. Over 30,000 African elephants are killed each year…with populations plummeting toward extinction. The wildlife trafficking crisis is global and has far-reaching, detrimental economic, environmental, security and social impacts -- especially in Africa. Illegal poaching and associated wildlife trafficking are major sources of funding for transnational organized criminal networks, insurgencies and militant groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). These organizations are well structured, often violent and capable of illegally moving large commercial volumes of wildlife and wildlife products.
In mid-December, I led a U.S. delegation to Khartoum in an unprecedented visit to assess the possibility of long-term cooperation with the Government of Sudan on efforts to halt wildlife trafficking, as well as to learn more about ivory trafficking and LRA involvement. Sudan has historically been one of Africa’s major transit routes for illicit trade of wildlife products. However, due to decades of ongoing conflict and strained relations between Sudan and the United States, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leaders have never visited Sudan.
Poachers and traffickers travel long distances from Sudan across central Africa in search of elephants residing in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan and other neighboring countries. Porous borders, long-standing unrest, endemic conflict, widespread poverty, lack of economic opportunities and frequent movement of a large number of people in these areas all contribute to the illicit trade.
|Sudanese government’s seized wildlife stockpile.
Accompanied by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chief of Law Enforcement William Woody, Special Agent in Charge David Hubbard, and senior officials from the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Security Council and the Directorate of National Intelligence, I spent three days meeting with senior government officials and local leaders, viewing the Sudanese government’s seized ivory stockpiles, and visiting local markets, or souqs, known to be centers of commerce for illegal wildlife products.
As part of a high-level dialogue with the Government of Sudan, the visit included constructive discussions with national and state government leaders, National Police, ethnic leaders from Kafia-Kingi and South Darfur, and civil society representatives. We heard about the Sudanese government’s efforts to combat wildlife trafficking and promote wildlife conservation, including deployment of officers in nine national parks, enforcement challenges, such as rough terrain, recent drug control operations and development of management plans. We gained a better understanding of existing Sudanese wildlife laws and pending legislation. In addition, we discussed the impacts the ongoing armed conflicts and the poor economy have had on wildlife management and trafficking.
Following a visit on the first day with the Foreign Minister, senior officials from the National Police, Ministry of the Interior, and National Intelligence and Security Service, the delegation viewed a storage facility of seized wildlife products at the Wildlife Protection Policy Headquarters.
Sudanese government’s seized wildlife stockpile.
After speaking with the Sudanese government, I also had the opportunity to hear from more than 15 traditional leaders of ethnic groups located around Kafia-Kingi and South Darfur during a roundtable discussion. These leaders pointed to a poor economy, the long-running conflict in Darfur, the proliferation of arms and a strong demand for exotic goods as the main reasons for illegal trafficking of wildlife. They described movements of poachers, some of which were said to be LRA, recalling that these groups would travel between Sudan and neighboring countries in the south to poach elephants for their tusks and other wildlife for their skins. The poachers would then return to the Darfur region to sell these products. Driven by the dire situation in the region, local hunters also turn to trafficking wildlife for income – which can be far more lucrative than farming and other means of generating money in an area that has been a conflict zone for years.
Many groups move in and out of the region across borders with the CAR and other neighboring countries, creating enforcement challenges. But increased enforcement efforts alone will not address the problem. Raising awareness with local communities and creating new economic opportunities as alternatives to selling ivory and wildlife products are also needed. This was reiterated by both traditional leaders and senior government officials.
Despite government efforts, a trip to Omdurman and Khartoum markets indicated a thriving business in wildlife products – from carved ivory tusks to snake skin shoes.
Markets in Khartoum and Omdurman openly sell ivory and other illegal wildlife products.
Combating wildlife trafficking has been a major priority for the U.S., spurred by President Obama’s Executive Order in September 2013 and advanced with bipartisan support through the adoption of the END Wildlife Trafficking Act in October 2016. U.S. efforts to combat wildlife trafficking have focused on enforcement, demand reduction, on-the-ground protection and conservation, and international cooperation and capacity building.
Cooperation and partnerships around the globe are cornerstones of these efforts. In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created a dedicated International Operations Unit to dramatically expand the reach and effectiveness of our law enforcement program. We have based regional attachés in key locations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and continue to expand our global presence and encourage cooperation - with our newest special agent attaché joining the U.S. Embassy in Libreville, Gabon, this month.
The United States remains deeply committed to the Sudanese people. Through visits like this, the U.S. aims to set a foundation for future cooperation that could not only help to save Africa’s iconic species but promote regional security and a peaceful and stable Sudan.
About the author: Teresa R. Christopher is the Associate Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.