U.S. Spooks Joining Fight Against African Poachers

It's no secret I love Africa. It's gotten into my soul, adventurous place that it is, with its wild places, wonderful cultures and the most amazing displays of wildlife that you'll find anywhere on the planet. But two of my favorite species, elephants and rhinos, are being slaughtered by the thousands as poachers look to harvest their tusks and horns to be sold on the black market in Asia. Some of the stories I've heard about how these animals are treated are simply horrific, and whenever possible I try to shine a light on the topic in hopes of making more people aware of what is happening.

Last week, the battle against these poachers took an unexpected turn when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that she and President Obama, were instructing the U.S. intelligence community to turn their formidable skills towards helping fight these actions. In a meeting with conservationists, ambassadors and other world leaders, Clinton called for the creation of a new, unified global strategy to combat poaching, which has grown into big business thanks to the demand for ivory and rhino horns, which are used in traditional medicines in China and other Asian countries. She also pledged $100,000 to help fund a new enforcement initiative.

Because these black market activities are international in scope, crossing numerous borders and spread across multiple continents, employing U.S. intelligence assets seems like a good idea. Bringing the CIA and NSA into the fight signals two things: First, the U.S. is finally getting serious about ending poaching. Second, the Obama administration must see the illegal hunting and harvesting of these animals as a potential threat to the security of U.S. interests abroad. Considering the fact that many of the poachers are rebels or rogue militias who sell ivory and other illegal goods to fund their campaigns against local governments, it's clear how someone could make that leap.

While I'm happy to see the U.S. putting its vast intelligence network to use for conservation, I would've liked to see more than $100,000 pledged to helping create this new anti-poaching "global strategy." That's barely a drop in the bucket compared to our total international aid money, and the poachers themselves can pull in more cash than that from the sale of a few tusks or rhino horns. Because they are making so much, these outlaws now come armed with advanced weaponry and often go hunting for their prey from helicopters. If local anti-poaching units are going to be able to fight back, they need to be better armed, equipped and trained themselves—and that's a job that requires yet more funding.

Still, this is a start, and I acknowledge it's a good thing that the U.S. has finally taken a stand on this incredibly important issue. Elephants and rhinos are being killed off at an alarming rate—so many so fast that they're now extinct in parts of their traditional African range. To give you an idea of just how awful this situation has gotten, the The Washington Post estimates that more than 10,000 elephants are killed each year in Tanzania alone. That's a scary number, to be sure.

Perhaps I'm more sensitive to poaching than most people, since I've seen these animals up close in the wild. On one of my visits to Kruger National Park in South Africa last year, I came across a large breeding heard of elephants wandering through the wilderness. My companions and I sat and watched them wander past us, enjoying the way they interacted with one another in a playful and loving way. Elephants are extremely intelligent creatures who greet each other, care for one another and even mourn the loss of those close to them. Seeing it in person makes for a very personal experience that is hard to convey, but which remains very powerful nonetheless.

It'll be interesting to see where these new efforts go, and how U.S. intelligence assets can help end the poaching. Hopefully, they'll not only be able to track shipments of ivory and rhino horns, preventing them from reaching buyers in Asia, but also locate those buyers themselves. The only way to completely dismantle the illegal trade of poached animal parts, in my opinion, is to stamp out the demand for them.

Perhaps we need to do a little poaching of our own.

This story first appeared on The Adventure Blog.