West Africa urged to expand counter-drug ops to wildlife smugglers

The United States is urging West African nations to expand cooperation on drug trafficking to also target groups that trade in endangered wildlife, a senior US State Department official said Tuesday.

AFP| Last Updated: Aug 06, 2014, 05:56 AM IST

The United States is urging West African nations to expand cooperation on drug trafficking to also target groups that trade in endangered wildlife, a senior US State Department official said Tuesday.

William Brownfield, assistant secretary for counter-narcotics affairs, said combatting wildlife smuggling has become an "extremely high priority" for the United States in part because crime groups that traffic in elephant tusks or rhino horns can -- and do -- smuggle drugs, arms and humans.

"We figure that wildlife trafficking is more than seven billion dollars a year -- that is a pretty big piece of change," said Brownfield. "That can buy you a great deal of mischief if mischief is what you are trying to do."

"The same organizations that move drugs and people and firearms and do basic smuggling are moving rhino horns and elephant tusks and other products that come from illicit wildlife trafficking," he said.

Brownfield said that expanding cooperation on wildlife trafficking will be discussed Friday with West African officials who are in Washington for a US-Africa summit.

The United States also is pushing for a more intense focus on building capacity in West Africa to target money-laundering and financial crimes.

Since 2011, the United States, the 15-nation ECOWAS group, five European countries and two South American countries have taken a coordinated approach to stem the flow of drugs moving through West Africa from South America on their way to markets in western Europe.

The United States has provided $100 million to support training for law enforcement officers, stand up anti-narcotics units and carry out multi-lateral security operations in West Africa.

"On Friday I very much hope we will be able to talk about taking this initiative to the next step," said Brownfield, a former US ambassador to Colombia.

On wildlife trafficking, the United States is prepared to offer rewards of up to five million dollars for the capture of individuals running those smuggling networks, he said.

He said lessons learned from recent coordinated operations against wildlife traffickers in East Africa could be brought to West Africa.

Organized crime syndicates and rebel militia increasingly use poaching to fund insurgencies, reaping the benefits of multi-billion-dollar demand for ivory in China where it is used as decoration and in traditional medicines.