African Leaders and Youth Engage with U.S. on Illegal Wildlife Trafficking at the historic U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit

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Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior, speaking at the Dialogue on Combating Wildlife Trafficking at the plenary session of the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit. Photo credit: Gavin Shire/USFWS

On August 4th at the first U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit, held in Washington, D.C., African leaders took a strong stance against illegal wildlife trade. The Signature event on “Combating Wildlife Trafficking” was hosted by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. The Presidents of the Republic of Namibia, the Republic of Togo, the United Republic of Tanzania, and the Gabonese Republic participated in this dialogue with other African leaders, senior U.S. government officials from the Presidential Task Force and the federal Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, leaders of key non-government organizations, and participants from President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative Network (YALI).

Recognizing that the illegal wildlife trade is a global challenge that merits a global response, the African leaders discussed progress made since President Obama’s visit to Africa in 2013 and agreed to work with the U.S. and other nations to continue to strengthen regional and international cooperation – one of the three priorities outlined in the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking issued by President Obama in February 2014. In addition, they pledged to work with their governments and local communities to address the challenge of wildlife trafficking on a national and transnational basis.

The dialogue revealed the common threads between African nations confronting the dramatic escalation of wildlife trafficking. Combatting wildlife trafficking involves multiple facets including conservation, economic, governance and security issues.  When asked how the U.S. could assist, African heads of state mentioned assistance with professionalizing law enforcement agencies, regional and global cooperation, surveillance technology, and training as priorities. The President of Gabon, a country that is home to more than half of the world’s remaining forest elephants, had an additional request: He asked for U.S. help to “kill the market” in China, the world’s largest destination of ivory.

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Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell (front row, third from right)), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe (back row, center) and Africa Branch Chief Richard Ruggiero (back row, far right) meet with YALI representatives at the Department of Interior. Photo credit: Mathew John/National Park Service

Fueled by high demand, in particular from Asia, wildlife trafficking represents a multibillion-dollar criminal enterprise. Some of the African continent’s most emblematic species, including elephants and rhinos, are now at serious risk of extinction from poaching. This has major consequences not only for ecosystem and human health, but also for national economic development. Many African youth leaders, cognizant of the fragility and expendability of wildlife and the consequences this will carry, are determined to turn the tide. “We are using what we have for the future,” stated YALI spokesperson Clive Chifunte. “As youth, we feel we must take part for future generations.”

With more than 700 million people under the age of 30 in Africa (60 percent of Africans are between the ages of 15 and 25), any solution to the wildlife trafficking crisis must mobilize the next generation of African leaders through national, regional and community-based solutions. Addressing the African leaders, Secretary Jewell said “We stand ready to work with you to inspire the new generation of leaders – in our country as well as in yours, to take up the mantle and to protect our natural heritage for generations to come. As leaders, we share the responsibility to act.  As President Obama emphasized when he visited Tanzania last year, we need to do more and we need to do it faster. Standing together, we can send a clear and very powerful message: we will stop the poachers, we will stop the profits, and we will protect our natural heritage.” 

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