Combating Wildlife Trafficking:
Agencies Are Taking Action to Reduce Demand but Could Improve Collaboration in Southeast Asia
GAO-18-7: Published: Oct 12, 2017. Publicly Released: Oct 12, 2017.
What do elephants, pangolins, and tigers have in common?
The illegal wildlife trade—estimated to be worth at least $7 billion annually—is pushing these and other species to the brink of extinction. The United States and Asia are key sources of demand for a variety of wildlife.
U.S. agencies are taking steps, such as raising awareness and training local authorities, to reduce demand and improve law enforcement, but disagreements over roles and responsibilities in Southeast Asia have hindered some efforts.
We recommended that USAID and the Departments of State and Interior clarify roles and responsibilities of staff in the region.
Examples of Wildlife Products Seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Miami
Photo of a turtle shell, animal skins, rhino horn and other products in a display with a sign explaining they were confiscated.
What GAO Found
In the United States, China, and countries in Southeast Asia, there is diverse demand for illegally traded wildlife, according to data, reports, and various officials. The Department of the Interior's (Interior) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has seized a variety of wildlife at U.S. ports, such as coral for aquariums, conch meat for food, seahorses for medicinal purposes, and crocodile skin for fashion items. In China and Southeast Asian countries, reports and officials have identified seizures and consumption of illegally traded wildlife products such as rhino horn, elephant ivory, pangolins (shown below), turtles, and sharks, among others, used for purposes such as food, decoration, pets, or traditional medicine.
Live Mother and Baby Pangolins at a Rescue Center in Vietnam (left) and Seized Pangolin Scales and Products at an Education and Awareness Display in Hong Kong (right)
U.S. agencies are taking actions designed to reduce demand for illegal wildlife, including building law enforcement capacity and raising awareness, but disagreement on roles and responsibilities has hindered some combating wildlife trafficking (CWT) activities in Southeast Asia. FWS inspects shipments in the United States and facilitates law enforcement capacity building with partner nations overseas. The Department of State (State) conducts diplomatic efforts, some of which contributed to a joint announcement by China and the United States to implement restrictions on both countries' domestic ivory trade. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) works with local organizations abroad to support programs intended to reduce wildlife demand, strengthen regional cooperation, and increase law enforcement capacity. Several other agencies also contribute expertise or resources to support various demand reduction activities. Certain practices can enhance and sustain collaborative efforts, such as establishing joint strategies, defining a common outcome, and agreeing on roles and responsibilities. GAO found that agencies applied the first two practices but could improve with regard to agreement on roles and responsibilities in Southeast Asia. For example, although the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking Implementation Plan designates various Task Force agencies to lead or participate in achieving CWT strategic priorities, it does not define specific roles and responsibilities at the working level. Agencies have different views on roles and responsibilities in Southeast Asia. According to some officials, this disagreement resulted in inappropriate training activities and hindered U.S. cooperation with a host nation. More clearly defining roles and responsibilities would enhance agency collaboration.
Why GAO Did This Study
Wildlife trafficking—illegal trade in wildlife—is estimated to be worth $7 billion to $23 billion annually and, according to State, continues to push some protected and endangered animal species to the brink of extinction. In 2013, President Obama issued an executive order that established an interagency Task Force charged with developing a strategy to guide U.S. efforts to combat wildlife trafficking.
GAO was asked to review U.S. agencies' CWT efforts. GAO's September 2016 report on wildlife trafficking focused on supply side activities (GAO-16-717). This report focuses on demand side activities and examines, among other things, (1) what is known about the demand for illegal wildlife and wildlife products in the United States and in Asia and (2) actions agencies are taking to reduce demand for illegal wildlife products in the United States and in Asia. GAO reviewed information from U.S. agencies and international and nongovernmental organizations and interviewed U.S. officials in Washington, D.C., and Miami, Florida, and U.S. and foreign government officials in China, Thailand, and Vietnam.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that Interior, State, and USAID work to clarify roles and responsibilities for staff collaborating on combating wildlife trafficking efforts in Southeast Asia. Agencies agreed with GAO's recommendations.
For more information, contact Kimberly Gianopoulos at (202) 512-8612 or email@example.com.
Recommendations for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: The Department of the Interior concurred with this recommendation and indicated it would take steps to implement it. Department of the Interior actively consulted with and engaged the Department of State and USAID both in headquarters and at the missions to solicit input during their grant and cooperative agreement review process, share information about which projects have been selected for funding, and to ensure they fit with and complement Department of State and USAID financial assistance efforts. For example, in March 2018, the Department of the Interior solicited input from Department of State and USAID on two wildlife-related grants. In doing so, the Department of Interior ensured that roles and responsibilities of mission staff and others working in the region are clarified and understood with regard to these projects. In addition, Embassy Bangkok in January 2018 reinvigorated the Wildlife Working Group, which includes the State Department's Environment, Science, Technology, and Health officers, Department of Interior Fish and Wildlife Service Attaches, and USAID staff. The group meets every six weeks to ensure high-level awareness and coordination among working group CWT stakeholders.
Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should work with the Task Force to clarify roles and responsibilities of mission staff engaged in collaborative efforts on combating wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asia. (Recommendation 1)
Agency Affected: Department of the Interior
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: The Department of State concurred with this recommendation and indicated it would take steps to implement it. In January 2018, State jointly established the U.S. Embassy Bangkok Wildlife Working Group, comprised of officers from State, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and USAID. The Working Group clarified roles and responsibilities by clearly distinguishing the actions that each agency would undertake, and as a result, agencies are effectively coordinating their efforts to take full advantage of their expertise and resources in addressing wildlife trafficking. These actions implemented the recommendation.
Recommendation: The Secretary of State should work with the Task Force to clarify roles and responsibilities of mission staff engaged in collaborative efforts on combating wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asia. (Recommendation 2)
Agency Affected: Department of State
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: In October 2017, GAO reported that although agencies have worked together to combat wildlife trafficking (CWT), disagreement on roles and responsibilities has hindered some CWT activities in Southeast Asia, according to some officials. GAO recommended that the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) work with the Task Force to clarify roles and responsibilities of mission staff engaged in collaborative efforts on combating wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asia. USAID agreed with the findings in the GAO report, concurred with the recommendation, and has taken action. In response to GAO's recommendation, USAID indicated in a March 18, 2018 official letter to GAO that in October 2017 USAID conducted a three-day training course on combating wildlife trafficking for USAID mission staff. Two modules, totaling two and half hours, focused specifically on working with other agencies within the USG. The modules included material from the U.S. Departments of State, Interior and Justice, and focused on their respective mandates and roles in combating wildlife trafficking . These actions implemented the recommendation.
Recommendation: The Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development should work with the Task Force to clarify roles and responsibilities of mission staff engaged in collaborative efforts on combating wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asia. (Recommendation 3)
Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development