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WORLD WILDLIFE DAY | US official: Wildlife trafficking is a bloody crime

United Nations marks World Wildlife Day 2017.
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA - As nations celebrated World Wildlife Day on March 3, a U.S. Department of State official reminded the public that wildlife trafficking was a "bloody crime", aside from it pushing species to the brink of extinction.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Daniel Foote of the U.S. Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, held a telephonic briefing from Washington D.C. with reporters from Asia-Pacific on Friday.

"Wildlife trafficking is a transnational crime that has devastating impacts on ecosystems and societies," he said.

"(But) one of the difficult issues with wildlife trafficking is many of the end customers and, to some extent, the low-level traffickers, aren't fully aware of the illegality of doing this," Foote pointed out. This was why he believed it was important for countries to raise awareness about the issue.

This was echoed by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, in his message on World Wildlife Day.

"Strict enforcement of laws is important, but, so, too, is awareness. As consumers, we have the power to demand that all wildlife products come from sustainable sources. I particularly appeal to young people to protect their inheritance by becoming informed and acting to protect wild animals and plants from the threat of extinction," he said.

Meanwhile, Foote explained that wildlife trafficking served to strengthen and fund criminal syndicates so that they could sustain their illicit activities; this then fueled corruption, violence, and instability. Wildlife trafficking also threatened security and restricted economic development, he added.

However, it was often seen as only a conservation issue, rather than a serious crime.

Illegal wildlife products were among the top five most lucrative trafficked illegal goods at present, raking in at least $10 billion a year, Foote reported.

Ivory, rhinoceros horns, and pangolin scales are popular products in great demand in Asia, particularly China and Vietnam. These are seen as status symbols, or used in traditional medicine.

According to Foote, Southeast Asia was a major source, destination, and transit point for the illegal trade.

He disclosed a number of "positive developments" in the region, with more ordinary citizens realizing that wildlife trafficking was a serious issue.

He lauded Vietnam for hosting the Hanoi International Wildlife Conference in November last year, where it had its first stockpile destruction of over two tons of ivory and rhinoceros horns.

A "record number" of seizures had been made as well in the past few months in Southeast Asia, although Foote didn't say how many.

He noted that China had also recently released an "ambitious" timetable to close its domestic markets for ivory. Enforcing it would have "an enormous impact" on the global demand for ivory, given that the two largest consumers were China and the US, Foote said.

"But there's still a long way to go. Customs enforcement must keep up that momentum so their ports and borders can detect illegal shipments. Investigations, arrests, and convictions of the criminal syndicates involved are also desperately needed," he said.

Foote noted that, after participating in Interpol's Operation PAWS (Protection of Asian Wildlife Species) last year, Vietnam arrested seven suspects and seized 1,400 kilograms of ivory, six kg of rhinoceros horn, and one frozen tiger.

For its part, the U.S. Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs had been helping Southeast Asian nations counter trafficking by providing training and technical assistance on legal reform; enhancing investigative and prosecutorial capacity; and building regional cooperation to go after wildlife traffickers.

His office also oversaw the International Law Enforcement Academy in Bangkok, which trained prosecutors, judges, and other "justice sector actors" on tactics against wildlife trafficking.

Given that the crime is inherently transnational, the response must also be international, Foote said.

"No country can be effective in tackling this scourge on its own," he pointed out. This was why he hoped that the region would increase coordination, communication, information, and intelligence-sharing to combat the crime.