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Conservation as Diplomacy

Paula J. Dobriansky, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs
Remarks at a Wildlife Conservation Society Panel Discussion
Washington, DC
May 19, 2008

Thank you John, and many thanks to Dr. Sanderson, Dr. Redford, and you for inviting me.

Conservation is a vital diplomatic tool, one which is increasingly at the forefront of our foreign policy. As we know, mismanagement of natural resources can exacerbate tensions and conflicts within and between countries.

Conversely, cooperation within and between countries to manage shared resources and address transboundary environmental concerns can produce tremendous benefits in terms of not only environmental protection but also peace and stability.


One key example is Liberia, where a corrupt system for awarding logging concessions provided revenue for Former President Charles Taylor and his allies in a 14-year civil war. By some accounts, the Taylor regime at one point doled out more than 10 million hectares in logging concessions, even though there are only about 4 million hectares of forest in the entire country.

In 2003, the United States successfully sought UN Security Council sanctions against timber exports from Liberia. Within months of these sanctions being imposed, the Taylor regime fell.

Today, we are finding in Liberia that it is possible to use conservation as a bulwark against conflict. In early 2004, the U.S. Government joined forces with Liberia, other donors, and NGOs to launch the Liberia Forest Initiative (LFI) to address forest sector reform in Liberia.

The Liberia Forest Initiative is helping to promote peace and security, economic growth, and democratic governance by restarting commercial forestry on a sustainable basis and by encouraging community-based natural resource management.

The Liberia Forest Initiative is increasingly viewed as a model for forest reform efforts in Africa and elsewhere.

Leo the Snow Leopard

Few organizations understand the linkage between conservation and diplomacy as well as the Wildlife Conservation Society. At the State Department, we have enjoyed a strong partnership with WCS over the years.

I would be remiss to speak about conservation as diplomacy without mentioning our joint efforts with WCS, the Government of Pakistan, and many others on behalf of one of the most charismatic diplomats ever – Leo, an orphaned snow leopard.

Snow leopards are one of the world’s most endangered mammals. In 2005, a shepherd in the mountains of northern Pakistan found Leo as an orphaned cub and, after caring for him in his home, turned Leo over to the Government of Pakistan.

Months later, after extensive cooperation between the governments, conservation NGOs, and even British Airways, Leo was transferred to his temporary home in the Bronx Zoo. Leo is thriving there, and the WCS continues to work in Pakistan to develop the skills and the infrastructure needed to protect endangered species, like the snow leopard, in the wild.

Efforts like these are about a lot more than just one animal, even one as charismatic as Leo. Leo’s tale captured the personal attention of senior officials in the U.S. Government and the Government of Pakistan, including President Musharraf himself. Finding common cause on conservation can play an important role in strengthening our broader diplomatic relationships.

Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking

Another example of conservation diplomacy is the critical issue of wildlife trafficking.

The illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products not only threatens many species with extinction, but also is increasingly linked to organized crime, including the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and people.

As Newsweek magazine put it in a recent issue, endangered animals are the new “blood diamonds.” With annual estimates of the dollar value of this trade ranging from $10 to 20 billion, this trade threatens wildlife and people alike.

No one government or organization can combat this sophisticated criminal activity alone and hope to succeed. In 2005, the United States formed a partnership called the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking, or CAWT.

Since then, CAWT has grown from 5 to 19 partners, including Australia, Canada, Chile, India and the United Kingdom and 13 international conservation organizations, including WCS. We thank WCS for their support.

The Coalition has already helped the countries of Southeast Asia, through ASEAN, set up a regional wildlife enforcement network that has had a series of impressive “stings” and we are working to establish similar networks in other regions.


Finally, I’d like to highlight the Wildlife Conservation Society’s groundbreaking work in Southern Sudan. Last June, I was fortunate – thanks to WCS – to meet with representatives from the Government of Southern Sudan to discuss their joint efforts to simultaneously protect wildlife and encourage economic growth in that region.

I was thoroughly impressed by the survey conducted by Michael Fay and others showing that the second largest mammal migration in the world was occurring in a region torn by decades of conflict.

Through WCS collaboration, 2007 aerial surveys of the Boma-Jonglei region in Southern Sudan revealed a massive migration of herds of kob antelope, gazelle, and elephants that rival those of the Serengeti plains. This discovery astounded even the project biologists and confirmed that this natural phenomenon had amazingly persisted through 25 years of civil war.

The series of aerial surveys that confirmed the migration – the first such surveys since 1982 – was yet another example of international collaboration and cooperation among many players.

We are proud to have supported this undertaking through USAID and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and to see the benefits of WCS’s conservation and diplomacy expertise so stunningly demonstrated.


From the high, remote regions of the Pamir in Afghanistan to Southern Sudan to the rainforests of Central and South America – we know conservation diplomats are on the ground making a real difference in people’s lives, sustaining their livelihoods and protecting wildlife for the benefit of generations to come.

The U.S. Government will continue to pursue opportunities where diplomacy can promote conservation and where conservation can sustain diplomacy.

Thank you very much.

Released on May 23, 2008

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