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Wildlife Trafficking Issues

Bo Derek, Special Envoy of the Secretary of State for Wildlife Trafficking Issues
Claudia A. McMurray, Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
Washington, DC
June 9, 2008

2008/475 

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MR. GALLEGOS: Good afternoon. I appreciate you all coming. Today we have a briefing with Special Envoy to the Secretary of State for Wildlife Trafficking Issues Bo Derek and Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, Environment and Science, Claudia McMurray. They’ll be discussing wildlife trafficking issues. 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: Thank you. Good afternoon. Thanks for coming. I wanted to specifically discuss three public service announcements that we launched at the United Nations last week. We launched the American version of them. And then in over 60 of our U.S. embassies around the world, we have also launched this ad in 60 capitals. And in those countries people will be seeing these ads on television, hearing them on the radio, seeing them in movie theaters and hopefully in conjunction with the new Harrison Ford movie, and also seeing them on the web. They’re already up on the internet. And I regret that we did not have a television screen to show you these ads, but we do have lots of copies of DVDs and we’d be happy to supply anybody with them who’s interested. 

So now I just want to make a few comments about the issue itself, wildlife trafficking, because I think a lot of people think that wildlife is generally threatened by loss of habitat, growth of human populations, the conflict between humans and animals. And that is certainly true. But I think what we’ve been seeing recently is something different pushing them to the brink of extinction and that is poaching, this illegal trade that goes on primarily in Africa and Asia and the products come to China and to America and to Europe. 

It’s a huge black-market industry. The conservative estimates are that it is about $10 billion per year in illegal trade around the world. And Interpol has also suggested that there are connections with other kinds of illegal trafficking that goes on, whether it be drugs or weapons or people, because they tend to use the same routes and the same methods, regardless of what they’re smuggling. So we’re dealing with a huge black market in crime. 

Newsweek magazine recently put it that endangered animals are the new blood diamonds. So in 2005, the United States responded to this trend that we were seeing in more illegal activity and we formed something called the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking and it looks like you all have the information sheet here. We started out with five partners. We now have 19. They’re both countries and nongovernmental organizations. And our goal is to work at both the supply and the demand of these products. 

Today I’ll just focus on the demand because I want to get to your questions. But some people don’t know this -- the biggest market you might expect, the biggest market for illegal wildlife and wildlife parts is China, but the number-two market is the United States. Consumers are really buying these products in all sorts of places, when they travel, on the internet, sometimes even in shops right here at home. And in most cases, they think that the products are perfectly legal. We consider it our job and the U.S. Government to tell Americans that that is not the case, so we wanted to shine a light on this practice. We wanted to make people aware that they shouldn’t just automatically go on a trip and buy something and bring it home. They ought to think about it. They ought to ask questions and they ought to say no if they have any hesitation whatsoever. 

So one of the ways we decided it would really help for us to get the word out was to get someone who really cares about these issues and also is very well-known. And it just happens that Harrison Ford is a committed conservationist. He’s been on the board of Conservation International for some 15 years and this issue is something he really cared about. So he donated his time and a number of directors and producers donated their time as well. And we produced three 30-second ads that are really quite effective, I think, and all you have to do is click on either the State Department website or YouTube or a number of other places and you’ll see them. 

As I mentioned earlier, we launched them in New York. We launched them also overseas. And we’ve already started to get a lot of reaction from them. We’ve had them up on ABC News, Fox network has committed to run them, Al Jazeera has run them, and also as I mentioned, YouTube. But some of our more creative embassies have found an opportunity to run these in movie theaters in conjunction with the new Indiana Jones movie. 

So that’s one thing. And the other way that we’ve tried to make this issue have some public attention is in 2005, Secretary Rice appointed Bo Derek as her Special Envoy for Illegal Wildlife Trafficking Issues. And I’d like to just take an opportunity now to have her say a few words about her role in raising public awareness. Thank you.

Actress Bo Derek, the Special Envoy of the Secretary of State for Wildlife Trafficking Issues, speaks during a news conference, Monday, June 9, 2008, at the State Department in Washington [AP Photo]MS. DEREK: Thank you. My involvement specifically has been in education and reducing demand because it was very embarrassing for me to find out that the U.S. is number two in consuming endangered wildlife. And so many I’ve traveled often and also, I mean, so many times someone will tell you, you can buy this, it’s made of tortoise shell, but it’s a safe tortoise shell or it’s not endangered. And I think education and awareness is critical. And even in Asia, there are studies that show that in China, shark fin soup is literally translated to fish wing soup, and that people don’t know there that it’s made from shark fins. They think it’s fish fin and that some people even think that the fish fin grows back. So through awareness in these campaigns that we have with Harrison Ford now, for the U.S. and international, we also, through the non-government organization Wild Aid, we have Jackie Chan, Yao Ming, so many of the Asian athletes that are going to be participating in the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, to help educate the public. And it proves very effective. Personally, I have a hard time with the idea that we can ever create parks and reserves to protect these animals that have such a huge bounty on their head. So my effort is specifically through reducing demand through public awareness. 

And I’m happy to take any questions you might have.

QUESTION: How is China cooperating in this awareness campaign and also on the law enforcement front?

MS. DEREK: They have. The law enforcement front isn’t my expertise, obviously. But through the public campaigns, we’ve been – with Jackie Chan, Yao Ming and Chinese superstars, the government plays our PSAs for free. Sometimes primetime, right after the evening news. And between China, Asia and India we’ve been reaching sometimes a billion people a week. And that’s through government and non-government cooperation.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: I can add a couple things with China. First of all, there’s a new wildlife enforcement network formed by the ASEAN nations, the 10 nations in the ASEAN, with the U.S. and China. We worked together to help create this network and we both participate in their meetings as observers. So we’re trying to encourage this intelligence sharing, intelligence gathering by these nations because the trade moves up through these countries into China.

I would say also, and I can just preview this at the moment, is in Secretary Paulson’s strategic economic dialogue, which will meet again next week in Annapolis, one of the topics on the agenda is traditional Chinese medicine. The Chinese want our help increasing the market availability of these products around the world, and we’ve said we’d be happy to help legitimize them, but there’s this one big problem. Some of the ingredients are coming from endangered wildlife. So it’s a way we’re going to have a dialogue with them.

QUESTION: What about the issue of hunting? There are quite a lot of wealthy Americans who go, for example, to Zimbabwe, to Botswana and other – I’ll use Zimbabwe as an example, in particular, where their wildlife conservation is broken down. And there have been a lot of really rich American hunters who have been going in, just wiping out lion populations as trophies, for example. And also, you know, killing elephants, rhino, getting to the compacted horn. Are you looking at hunting as well and appealing to hunting groups in the U.S. to prevent them from doing this?

MS. DEREK: I think – I think you’re just distinguishing between a responsible hunter and an irresponsible hunter and it’s probably illegal, what they’re doing. And probably they’re not even allowed to bring them back into the United States, their trophies. 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: There are certain cases where it is legal through the Convention on Trade and Endangered Species. There are quotas that are given, very small quotas generally, and then that hunter has to have a permit coming back into the U.S. And if all of that matches up and it’s truly legal, then they can come in. But that’s been something that’s been scientifically reviewed by an international body.

There are – as Bo mentioned, there are a number of cases where trophies are seized because they’re not part of the legal system.

QUESTION: Yeah, can you first of all talk about enforcement in the United States? Because I know that I’ve gone to Asian restaurants and have seen shark’s fin soup on the menu. I’m sure – I mean, I know it’s very expensive, but it’s out in the open. I mean, there’s – they’re not trying to cover it up. So if you could talk about the kind of enforcement and monitoring in the United States. And also, Ms. Derek, if you could talk about how you got into this field about trying to protect endangered wildlife and how you got interested in it.

MS. DEREK: Would you like to go first on the shark fin?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: Okay. I’ll – I’ll take the first. We have had lots of reports of seeing that kind of product on the menu. I think at the beginning we were seeing it purely in Asian communities, but now it’s become a little bit more of a luxury item, frankly. And so you see it in places like Las Vegas and some other areas like that. 

QUESTION: It’s legal then?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: It is legal
 
QUESTION: So what’s the problem?
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: The activity is bringing the product in. Well, it’s just a case of whether you go and look at the activity that has – has made that soup possible. And the fact that it does endanger the sharks in the end by – because the practice, as Bo described it earlier, is that the fins are taken off and the animals are left to drown.

QUESTION: But there’s nothing – there’s nothing – I’m not breaking the law.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: You are not breaking the law.

QUESTION: Even if I import it?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: No. The person who brought it in initially, if they get caught, is doing something illegal, because that’s an endangered species. But once it’s in the country, you know, there’s no permit that goes along with those fins that makes it --

QUESTION: Are sharks endangered?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: Well,there are several species. There are, I think, 11 or 12 species of shark that are endangered.
 
QUESTION: But the only ones that would be illegal to bring in would be from those –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: That’s right.

QUESTION: -- endangered ones. 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: That’s right.

QUESTION: So how do we know that Elise’s restaurant that serves shark’s fin soup is serving –

MS. DEREK: Exactly.

QUESTION: I mean, how do you tell? Do they taste different? How do you know?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: Well, part of this problem – part of our problem is the confusion.  I’ve never had shark’s fin -- shark fin soup so I can’t tell you whether it tastes different one for the other. But as a matter of fact, I think you’ve said the taste is almost negligible –

QUESTION: Really?

MS. DEREK: It has no taste. It has texture and from the different species of shark, some of the – it’s cartilage and fibrous. So some will have more texture. And, of course, the great white is the prized bowl of soup. It’s the most rare and it happens to have the most texture.

QUESTION: But don’t you think there should be – is there any effort to make some kind of legislation to expand, like, you know – I mean, it’s not the same as drugs for instance, but it’s not only illegal to bring it in to the country but illegal to use it, illegal to possess it. I mean, is there any efforts to kind of expand the legislation?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: I think, for the most part, what both of you are pointing out is the difficulty of enforcing something at this level, at this level of detail. The U.S. does have in law a ban on shark finning, the actual activity of removing the sharks. We’ve tried to get other countries to go along with that. Some have and some haven’t. Some of that activity has to be enforced against – on the high seas, when it’s actually happening, and then also when they come back to port. But once we have made it illegal, we actually then would say that any by-product coming from that activity would be illegal. But what I’m trying to point out to both of you is that to follow a shark fin or a shipment of shark fins is very difficult given the volume of these things that are being taken every day.

QUESTION: If you could talk a little bit about how you – I know you’ve been doing it for a long time, but how did you get involved with it?

MS. DEREK: Yeah, I got involved about seven years ago. I was on a trip to the Galapagos Islands and I was on a ship thinking I was in the most pure, pristine, wonderful protected area in the world. There was a conservationist on board who pointed out that the sharks are being decimated from finning. Sea cucumbers, which are a vital part of the ocean’s ecosystem, fishermen can’t even make their legal quotas anymore. And it became apparent to me that just because we name a place protected, it doesn’t mean that we can enforce it. And that if we don’t reduce demand – some of our polls have shown that in areas where we had events with Yao Ming, Jackie Chan, people are polled saying that weren’t going to eat shark fin soup anymore, once they know where it comes from. And the sharks are difficult to – their numbers, they tend to live very deep. They don’t surface very often. It’s very difficult to know how many there really are left in the world. Some studies show that in the past 20 years they’re down 90 percent, the numbers. They reproduce very slowly. And how do you know if your (inaudible) --

There are some licensed sharks imported to different countries. I think Australia has a very good program, and you can actually buy licensed fin; meaning, it came from the whole animal that was fished and used. So that part is – it’s just very difficult. And I think of it, unless people just stop eating the soup, I don’t think the species has a chance.

QUESTION: You talk about the United States being the second largest market for this. What is it specifically that people are buying?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: Well, I think the biggest set of things coming in, in the past at least, maybe up to the last couple of years, is exotic pets. So it’d be snakes or other kinds of reptiles. Even some songbirds from the Amazon, for example. Live items as opposed to dead.

However, you can also see now more and more traditional Chinese medicine coming in, not just going to Asian communities. Again, it’s the same thing – people become wealthier, they like to try new things, and so they think this is a non-chemical way to address some of their medical problems.

You also will see the occasional skins, you know, reptile shoes. I think when I went to our place where we store all these seized items that the official wildlife service gets from the various ports, there was a Milwaukee Brewers cap with exotic lizard skin on the brim. You know, there’s all sorts of stuff, you can’t imagine.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) but the campaign against ivory worked pretty well. But how long did that take and how long –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: Well, the campaign against ivory is still ongoing. And even in some countries --

QUESTION: But you didn’t mention it all. It was then and I would have thought that –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: I didn’t. No, because at the beginning that was – and I should have, I guess. At the very beginning that was still something that was very much coming in, in large volumes, but it’s not now. We have, I think got a pretty effective enforcement program against that. But there’s still other countries where there’s a huge amount of illegal trade in elephant ivory.

QUESTION: In terms of Chinese traditional medicines, it’s sort of – the legal question is: Is there any effort to restrict these endangered animal – like tiger bone marrow and things like that we know they’re using those endangered species? Is there any kind of legislation contemplated or –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: Well, I -- we have pretty good legislation in place at the federal level. I think one of the things that’s been pointed out here is when something moves from state to state, sometimes it’s hard to catch up with the trade. So that might be one example of things that a state could do to help the whole enforcement regime. 

Bo and I went to the everglades a couple of months ago. And here we were in this area where we’re spending millions of – billions of dollars to kind of restore the natural habitat that existed many, many years ago. And when you ask the official wildlife service rangers who were there what they spend most of their time doing, they’re pulling snakes out of the water. They’re pulling pythons that have been imported into the U.S. And then when they got too big, you know, they got 20 feet long, the kids who received them didn’t want them anymore, and so their parents went and took them and dumped them in the canal if it led to the everglades. So that whole area of the country is now being disrupted by, what we call, an invasive species. It’s really, literally, trying to destroy some of the natural animals that are there. So that’s one example.

QUESTION: What do they do with the pythons when they take them out?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: You know, I think they kill them. I don’t think they try to take them back to their country of origin.

QUESTION: Do they give them to a zoo or something?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: What’s that? They take them to the Milwaukee Zoo or something?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: I think they probably kill them.

QUESTION: Which are the most sort of exotic pets? Have you noticed a trend? At one stage, tigers were coming in and a lot of monkeys. But have you noticed any new trends lately that are particularly interesting?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: Well, I think the birds are still a big concern. And I should differentiate, there are some birds that can come in perfectly legally. That’s a real challenge for the inspectors at our ports. They have to try and figure out – you know, where exactly something came from and where it fits in the endangered species list or not. I do think that – you remember the monkey pox virus that spread, I think it was three or four years ago. That was coming from rats that were imported in from China. And they carried this disease that then jumped to humans. So that was the first time we started to look at this as a health issue, in addition to an underground criminal-type issue or a conservation issue for that matter.

So I don’t know what the newest, newest trend is. But I think what the official wildlife service would tell you is the more exotic, the better. You know, the more of a challenge like those pythons that I described.

The tiger issue is something that I think we now have under control. You know, many, many years ago, before it was illegal to import a tiger, some very wealthy people did. And tigers reproduced in captivity very easily and we now have many tigers coming from that original import. So there is some concern about the fact that we have so many wild tigers that are being held in captivity here, not in zoos or not in circuses, but these are private individuals.

QUESTION: Do you have any idea how many?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: We don’t. When we talk to the Indian Government about how many they have left, they always say that they think we have more here in the U.S. But there’s never been a count of the various states where these things occur. So we don’t have numbers.

QUESTION: Am I mistaken, is there – do you run a wildlife preserve? Do you –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY:  No, I don’t.

QUESTION: Okay. I thought I saw something about that.

QUESTION: The market figures – you said about $10 billion a year in black markets, so what share would China kind of pour under these estimates and what share the U.S?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: You know --

QUESTION: How much is it going up? I mean, you don’t track it that specifically?
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: We can’t. I think one of the real problems – that’s an Interpol estimate and everybody quotes it because they’re pretty reliable. But the sheer nature of this is underground activity.

QUESTION: Sure.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: And so there’re actually some people who think the number is quite a bit higher than even the $20 billion on the outside.

As far as what the proportions are, I think it would be very difficult for me to estimate. You know, perhaps the market value of some of the things that come into the U.S. is actually more than what goes to China. But you know, from everything I’ve been able to read about this, China is very far ahead of us.

QUESTION: Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MCMURRAY: Thank you.



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