Excellencies and distinguished guests, I thank all of you for taking the time to be here today. All of our countries can and must do more. I’d like to also thank the Cameroonian media because your message to the Cameroonian people, your depiction of this event will go a long way to raising awareness of the dangers posed by trafficking. Citizen information and intelligence and citizen action are a critical component of the response, a critical part of the solution.
Thank you also, Minister Ngole Nwese, for hosting today’s event, for your powerful remarks, including your powerful not-so-subtle message to us in the international community. Thank you for that, and thank you most importantly, for your efforts and those of the Ministry of Forestry and Fauna to protect Cameroon’s rich biodiversity in the face of significant threats. I also would like to thank civil society groups who have been such dedicated and relentless advocates on behalf of wildlife conservation, some of whom I know are represented here today.
Today we are gathered for an event that is, on the one hand, celebratory, and on the other hand, deeply sobering.
On the one hand, today is a day to celebrate, because it marks the first time ever that the government of Cameroon has held an ivory burn – joining a growing group of countries around the world that have demonstrated their commitment to stopping poaching and illegal trade in wildlife. By burning this pyre, the government is sending a clear message to all who seek to profit from this monstrous trade – a message that the only place ivory belongs, and the only place ivory has value – is on elephants.
On the other hand, this is also a profoundly sobering event, because the pile you see is a tangible reminder that the slaughter of elephants, pangolins, rhinos and other irreplaceable species persists, as does the illegal demand for their ivory, scales, and horns – among so many other forms of trafficking in the endangered species that share our planet. It is one thing, I think, to talk abstractly about ongoing wildlife trafficking – which many of us do – it has become an ever-more frequent topic of conversation at international gatherings, but it is another thing entirely to see the pyre in front of us and to be forced to think about each and every animal that was killed in order to assemble it. And that pyre, enormous though it is, constitutes just a tiny, tiny fraction of the ivory that is trafficked.
Unfortunately, as we all know – in spite of important efforts like this one – wildlife trafficking continues, including, as the minister noted, here in Cameroon. In December 2015, at least twenty endangered forest elephants were killed in a single week in the southeast part of the country. And no one can forget – anywhere in the world – the massacre of some 400 elephants in Bouba Njida, in that national park over that grisly two-week period in February 2012. Experts who inspected the elephants’ carcasses after those hideous killings said that evidence suggested many of the elephants were still alive when poachers had cut off their trunks. So cruel were the poachers that they even killed baby elephants, whose tusks had not yet formed. As a result of these and other killings by poachers, the estimated elephant population in Bouba Njida has declined from some 800 elephants in 2008 to fewer than 300 elephants today.
Wildlife trafficking persists in significant part because there is still a market for the illicit goods it supplies – one that extends far beyond Cameroon, Central Africa, or the continent that these endangered species call home. Traffickers move nimbly back and forth across borders. They rely on illicit networks that span the globe to transport, trade, and sell ivory, scales, and other illegal wildlife parts and products. Often they use similar routes to those used to traffic drugs, weapons, and even human beings.
So if we know that this serious problem persists, if we have raised global awareness to an unprecedented extent, and if we know that solving it will require a truly comprehensive international response, what can we do beyond the important act that we will all witness today? Let me offer three brief suggestions.
First, as the minister noted, we must ensure that domestic law enforcement agencies have the training and the tools that they need to effectively combat wildlife trafficking. Poachers are better armed and more willing to use violence than ever before. Just a few weeks ago, among the many casualties that the minister alluded to, on April 1st, an eco-guard – a patriot, someone dedicated to protecting Cameroon’s animals and Cameroon’s biodiversity – was captured by a poaching gang and beheaded in Cameroon’s Faro National Park after he confronted the poachers. And yet local eco-guards and rangers are often outnumbered, outgunned, and insufficiently trained. That must change and we must find, collectively, the resources to ensure that they have the capabilities to do the job that so many in Cameroon want to do.
Of course, when dealing with traffickers who regularly move back and forth across borders – and transport their illicit goods thousands of kilometers by air, land, and sea – effectively combating this problem also requires strengthening law enforcement and coordination across international borders. Traffickers are extremely skilled at sniffing out and exploiting weak spots in the chain; we have to do a better job – we have to be more wily, more cunning, more nimble than they are in identifying and plugging those gaps, and we must dismantle the transnational networks that take advantage of them.
And while protecting our invaluable biodiversity should be reason enough to combat these illicit networks, let me offer another reason: the criminal networks that profit from trafficking fuel corruption and generate funds that can be used to fuel other dangerous activities that pose a serious security threat, including terrorism. So governments have a vital security interest in ensuring that those who engage in wildlife trafficking – and those who profit from turning a blind eye to it – are held accountable.
Second, we must work to reduce the demand for ivory, pangolin scales, and other illegally traded wildlife products. We recognize that a major piece of work falls to governments like mine and like many of those represented here. That is why President Obama prohibited all commercial imports of African elephant ivory for commercial purposes. Under proposed regulations expected to come into effect this year, the United States will also institute a near-complete ban on the export and domestic commercial trade in African elephant ivory.
Important as these steps are, we know that shutting down the market in any one country or even any one region is not enough in 2016. That is why the United States is working to reduce demand for illegally traded wildlife worldwide. Let me give just one example. When President Obama hosted China’s President Xi Jinping last September, China joined us in committing to enact a near complete ban on ivory import and export, and to taking timely, significant steps to halt the domestic commercial trade in ivory. Our two countries also agreed to collaborate more broadly to combat wildlife trafficking. And these efforts, combined with other factors, are producing early results – studies show that the price of ivory in China has nearly been cut in half in the past two years. We urge other countries, including in Central Africa, to join us in making similar pledges. And for those, like us, who have made pledges, we have a responsibility to implement them and you, in civil society, have a responsibility to call us out when we haven’t.
Third, we must help inform and empower local advocates who are on the front lines of conservation efforts, in Central Africa and beyond. To that end, for the past three years the United States has led the facilitation of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, which just last year brought together African governments, donor countries, NGOs, local leaders, and youth activists in Yaoundé to advance the sustainable management of the Congo Basin’s forests and biodiversity. And since 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has helped support the training of the next generation of African conservationists studying at the Ecole de Faune de Garoua in northern Cameroon, recently launching a program that will provide fellowships for an international team dedicated solely to protecting pangolins – so that we continue to see those animals in the wild where they belong, and not in pyres here or elsewhere in Africa.
We live in a world where – because of the actions of a few, and the inaction of the many – we really risk seeing wild elephants, pangolins, and so many of our planet’s other remarkable species disappearing from the Earth forever. Whether or not those species survive – whether our children, and our grandchildren, and their children get to even see the wildlife that we have had the luxury of being with and visiting in our lives, whether they get to see them in their natural habitat depends, in large part, on whether nations like ours can recognize our shared responsibility to stop global wildlife trafficking.
By burning this pyre today, the government of Cameroon is taking a truly important step toward preserving its incredible biodiversity, and sending a message of its commitment to preserve the wondrous world that we are all blessed to inhabit. Cameroon cannot do it alone. Together, we must take many, many more steps like this one. I thank you.