A Crisis Not Just of Our Natural Security, But Also Our National Security: A Conversation with Juan Zarate

A Crisis Not Just of Our Natural Security, But Also Our National Security: A Conversation with Juan Zarate

Government and conservation groups agree that poaching is a threat not only to the animals in Africa’s national parks, but to the people who live near those parks. And as more terrorist and other criminal groups get into the poaching game, the more widespread the problem becomes.

Last year, Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow made a short animated film to illustrate the growing connection between poaching and terrorism. One of her key advisors was Juan Zarate. He was Deputy National Security Advisor for combating terrorism in the second Bush administration. And now he’s Chairman and Co-Founder of the Financial Integrity Network and Chairman and Senior Counselor of the Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He spoke to our host Madeleine Brand about the threat poaching poses to our national security.*

Madeleine Brand: Let's talk about the scope of this problem. How many animals are being killed? What are they being killed for exactly? How much is this trade worth?

Juan Zarate: What you have is an acceleration of the poaching crisis, which is not necessarily new, but has been accelerated because of raising demand, the industrialization of the poaching process, and the use of the poaching trade by all sorts of groups including organized crime, militant groups, and terrorist organizations for profit. So what you have is an industry that raises tens of millions of dollars, that also sees the desecration of our natural environment and obviously has accelerated the crisis for endangered species like the elephants and rhinos. This has been an accelerating problem in part because you have rising demand in places like China and Vietnam and [continued] demand in places like North America, but you also have the reality that groups have purposely entered this trade because it is so profitable.

MB: Give me a sense of what you mean by that. How profitable is it?

JZ: Well, you have very low barriers of entry in this market. You have simply to try to track down herds of elephants and saw off their tusks and to feed it into the business cycle of the poaching trade. The barriers to entry are very low, so much so that groups from a variety of regions and stripes have gotten into the trade. The reality then is that ivory, which is incredibly valuable, has increased in value over time and that rhino horn has increased in value because of its scarcity as well as its reported medicinal value.

All of that means that those selling the actual ivory or horns are given a premium on the price. The brokers who facilitate it are also given a premium, and the end users and the sellers are obviously then able to sell it at high market prices. I don't know the actual price value currently, so I can't tell you what the margins look like, but it's without a doubt a profit center for militant groups, terrorist groups, and organized crime in a way that is seeing the decimation of our natural resources at a rate that we haven't seen before and is industrializing the poaching trade in a way that is dramatic and a problem from the perspective of national security.

MB: Let's talk about that angle of it. You are saying that this is actually fueling security problems because it's encouraging militant groups or terrorist groups or organized crime groups to get involved in these nefarious activities because it is so profitable, and I suppose, as we can see by the result, because anti-poaching laws are not very well enforced.

JZ: That's right. I think what you have is the attractive nuisance of a trade that presents a real profit and low barriers to entry, which rewards those who are willing to flout the law and certainly rewards those who are willing to out-gun or out-spend government forces or security around these natural resources. Without a doubt what you've had is a collection of actors, from those who specialize in this kind of poaching, to those who've entered the market recently like organized crime groups who know how to engage in illicit trade, know how to use brokers and shippers, and know the entire market mechanism to move illicit goods from the point of origin to market and to profit from it.

The challenge from a security perspective is not only that you have the environmental costs of this kind of trade, but that you have these groups that are profiting from the trade corrupting local governments, out-spending them in many ways and certainly out-gunning them. They’re also overwhelming the ability of local authorities to protect the resources at hand and certainly overwhelming any ability to prosecute or to enforce the law in an effective or meaningful way. From the U.S. perspective, it's incredibly dangerous and damaging in that it not only foments regional instability, but it gives life and resources to groups that the U.S. knows to be problematic and dangerous.

The Janjaweed militia in the Sudan, for example, has taken advantage of the ivory trade. The Lord's Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony — wanted by Uganda, east African countries, and the U.S., and hunted for all of his human rights abuses — is now fully engaged in the ivory trade. Even groups like Al-Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, has engaged in the ivory trade as part of its portfolio to add money to its coffers and to its budget. These are groups that are accelerating the trade and are taking full advantage to profit. That's precisely why this is an issue where our natural security is very much endangered when we're talking about the African elephants and the rhinos, because we're talking about regional stability and profits and financing that's going to some of the worst groups that we want to decimate and destroy.

MB: What is happening to combat this?

JZ: You've had the U.S. attempt to mobilize at least U.S. resources, if not elements of the international community with the Wildlife Tracking strategy put out by the Obama administration, which is an executive order that lays out certain penalties for actions taken by those involved in the wildlife trade. It’s certainly an attempt by the U.S. and other authorities, especially in Africa, to try to protect the natural resources that are at risk, but also then to try to go after the poachers and those who are part of this trade.

The challenge in all of this is the enforcement of the law. Enhancing the laws and penalties are certainly part of it, but the real challenge is how you enforce the laws to ensure that you're protecting the species that are at risk and holding responsible those who are trying to profit from this trade. Part of this as well is dealing with the demand that you see rising dramatically in Asia. Much of this [preventative work involves] awareness-building in places like China where ivory is still valued and still bought and where the demand is largely driving much of the threat of wildlife extinction in Africa. Part of what governments are trying to do is build up awareness among the consumer class to ensure that ivory is not as attractive a commodity as we've seen in the past.

The reality is we have to do more because the rate of acceleration is dramatic with respect to these species; the ability of militant and terrorist groups to take advantage of this trade is too high; and we have to do something about this nexus of our natural and national security, which demands more resources, more enforcement of the law, the use of other measures like financial isolation and sanctions against those who are part of this business cycle, and great accountability around the world for those who are, if not fueling, at a minimum profiting from this illicit trade. That takes resources. It takes coordination. It takes information sharing. It takes use of a variety of authorities, not just law enforcement but others as well. There's an all-out international strategy that has to be crafted to provide an opportunity for countries like the U.S. and China to work together and have a common goal in terms of saving these species and going after those who are profiting from illicit trade.

MB: It's hard to crack down at the source, as you were saying, because of weak governments and the power of some of these militant groups and terrorist groups. So is it more effective then to work on the demand side? How do you curtail demand in a place like China or a place like Vietnam, where rhino horns are seen as something that can confer some kind of mystical power?

JZ: The challenge of the poaching crisis is that you have to deal with all ends of the business. You have to deal with the protection of the animals and the species and the habitat at the source. You have to also deal with the middle-man and the business chain in between, and affect that and deter it. Then you have to deal with both the mythical and the real elements of the demand that happen in the market in places like China and Vietnam when it comes to ivory or rhino horn.

This is not just in the hands of the government. Awareness building and reducing demand for these kinds of items also sits with the private sector, as well as with celebrities. For example, in China, the famous basketball star Yao Ming has taken up the preservation of elephants as a key cause. If you go into the airport in Beijing you will see posters of Yao Ming standing next to elephants trying to raise awareness about the risks elephants face because of the ivory trade. In the United States, you've had celebrities like Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar-winning Hollywood director, raising awareness with a short film that talks about the threat to elephants in the ivory trade.

Part of this is not just governments cracking down and enforcing export or import laws, but it's also a matter of society raising its own awareness and revulsion to actually trading in or even purchasing these kinds of items. That's a long-term endeavor in societies where some of these items are not only considered to be valuable, but potentially medicinal and mystical. I think that's a huge challenge, but it's one that the public authorities as well as private actors need to take on and it forms a part of a series of things that need to happen if we're going to intervene in what is ultimately a crisis not just of our natural security but also our national security.

MB: What happens when rhino horn or ivory is seized?

JZ: Different authorities handle the seizure of these good differently. What you've seen around the world in recent months has been an attempt to use the seizure and destruction of these stockpiles as a clear public messaging campaign to indicate that A: this is not going to be allowed; B: that those who are engaged in these activities will be held accountable; and C: that these goods are not going to reach market in any way — they're going to be destroyed. You've had the symbolic and very dramatic burning and destruction of ivory tusks and other wildlife goods that have been seized at border points. Different authorities do different things with what they seize, but in the last couple of years authorities have decided to destroy publicly some of these stockpiles to make very clear that they are very serious about interdiction and holding those involved to account.

MB: They just grind them up and burn them?

JZ: In some cases they're ground up. In some cases they're burned in piles. In other cases they're kept as evidence in evidence lockers. It depends on the jurisdiction and how the particular country or authority handles those goods. I think part of the challenge is how you ensure that these goods aren't making it to market, aren't re-injected in some way, and certainly aren't raising the value of doing business in these kinds of goods, which of course has raised some controversial debates about whether or not to treat historical ivory goods in the same way that you would newly interdicted ivory trade. That has been a debate in the West and certainly continues to be an issue of some contention and debate.

MB: How much time do we have before some of these animals are extinct?

JZ: The last estimate that I saw in terms of the elephants, at least in certain parts of Africa, is that we're talking about a 10- to 15-year range before they become extinct. With rhinos, it depends on the species you're talking about and which population, but in South Africa and in southern Africa we're looking at maybe just a handful of years. What're you're talking about is a very short timeframe of environmental pressure and potential extinction for some incredibly important and great species that will no longer be with us within a generation.

In terms of what we can do, there's no question we need to protect these species at the source much better. There are more resources going into that  more training of park rangers, and more attempts to provide safe haven and habitat for these animals — but we also have to go after those who are part of the business chain, who are in essence fueling much of this industry. It’s in that vein that we have the most amount of work to do. How do we go after those in the middle part of this business chain who actually facilitate the activity, who buy it from those who are poaching, who make the payments to the militant groups and to the terrorist organizations, who actually broker the deals, who provide for the shipping, and who then actually get it to market?

That middle section of the business chain is something that we haven't focused much attention on. We have to find ways of going after the financing of those who are profiting in the middle, and often those are organized criminal groups who have figured out ways of running the logistics of the poaching trade. I think ensuring those individuals and groups are actually harmed and not profiting from this trade is part of the next stage of the strategy and has to be amplified rather quickly if it's going to have impact.

*This article has been lightly edited for clarity.