By 2030 African black rhinos and elephants could face extinction as poachers and other criminals, including violent extremist groups, sell rhino horns and ivory to largely Asian markets. The trade in protected wildlife, worth an estimated $7 to $10 billion annually, not only endangers these species, it destabilizes communities and impedes sustainable economic development.

Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Nancy Lindborg, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE)
Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Nancy Lindborg, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE)

In a Bipartisan Congressional Dialogue at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Senator Chris Coons and Representative Ed Royce stressed the urgency of preserving endangered species and noted the complications of doing so in weakly governed nations. Coons, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Royce, a Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have worked together for years on U.S. policy toward Africa.

The question, said Royce, is what citizens, nongovernment organizations, industry and government can do together to "salvage a situation which is not sustainable."

"We have a once in a lifetime chance," Coons said.

Poachers killed more than half of Africa's elephants in the past decade to profit from Asia's high demand for ivory. Wildlife trafficking has grown into one of the most lucrative global criminal activities, rivaling drug and arms smuggling. It has helped finance terrorist organizations such as al-Shabab and the Lord's Resistance Army.

The international community has begun to respond. Congress has helped place the United States at the forefront, with laws like the Congo Basin Forest Partnership Act of 2004 and the END Wildlife Trafficking Act of 2016.

Coons and Royce spoke in the fifth of USIP's Bipartisan Congressional Dialogues, a series of discussions to explore congressional common ground on foreign policy.

Linking human development to conservation

Coons told of an African leader who demanded of him why Americans feel entitled to "come over here and lecture us about preserving our … wildlife when your country is already developed and you've already diverted your rivers, you've already cut down your great forests?" As Coons recalled , the leader continued, "I have people who are hungry and who need jobs and … a future."

As Africa struggles to meet people's basic needs, "we have to find a way that human development on a continent with some of the fastest growing human populations on earth can work in harmony with conservation," Coons said. If conservation is seen as pitted against peoples' needs in a zero-sum game, the animals will lose, he said.

The only plausible strategy is one that links human development with animal protection, he said.

Royce said a powerful message for combining conservation with sustainable development had been to show African leaders the United States' Yellowstone National Park. The crowds of tourists—drawn from around the world by dramatic landscapes and herds of buffalo, which neared extinction in the late 19th century—are persuasive evidence, he said.

Building an ecotourism industry in southern Africa's Okavango River Basin could improve the lives of a million people, Royce said. The basin is Africa's biggest inland watershed, stretching from Angola's highlands, through Namibia, into northern Botswana. It shelters Africa's largest population of elephants and a wealth of biodiversity. A bipartisan bill, the DELTA Act, would combat wildlife trafficking and support sustainable development for the Okavango basin, Royce said.

Reducing demand for poachers' products

Royce said he draws hope for the future of elephants and rhinos from grass roots activism that has curbed demand for illegal wildlife products. In 2016, as the End Wildlife Trafficking Act was becoming law, young Chinese began a campaign to defend threatened species, Royce recalled. It led the Chinese government to shut down ivory factories and shops.

Yet even as demand declines in many places, extremist groups such as al-Shabab and the Lord's Resistance Army, as well as criminal poachers, have become better armed, killing increased numbers of park rangers as well as animals.

The criminal networks that smuggle heroin or people also trade in illicit wildlife products, said Coons. The U.S. and its partners need to attack the trade on all fronts: bolstering park rangers with better weapons and surveillance gear, engaging communities in the wildlife areas, and prosecuting transnational criminal groups.

Coons noted the U.S. has invested about $150 million a year in these programs to help quash a trade worth up to $10 billion.

Myopic development is a threat

Hope for the future of "iconic" animals can come from unexpected places, Royce said. So many landmines were laid during decades of Angola's civil war that elephants altered their migrations. Demining operations have let them start returning.

Some development projects financed and built by China pose major threats to wildlife, Royce said. He noted irrigation projects that divert water from the Okavango River, and proposals to dam the waterway. The Chinese model of development appears to offer immediate economic rewards to African states but it fails to incorporate social and environmental costs, he said.

While decisionmakers are tempted by such development, a civil society skeptical of big projects is growing in Africa, Royce said. Its activists have been disappointed by the environmental damage from mining projects, demolished forests and pollution. Royce said young legislators in Africa have emerged as another influential group open to dialogue about conservation.

Coons saluted Royce—who is retiring this year—for leading Congress' work on U.S. Africa policy.

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