As a U.S. first lady, senator, presidential candidate and secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton has spoken to a multitude of audiences around the world regarding a wide array of topics — from U.S. foreign policy to human rights and health care.
I was lucky enough to be in her latest audience last Wednesday night with more than 400 other guests at Conservation International’s (CI) 16th Annual New York Dinner, an event meant to raise vital funds to support our work around the world.
Secretary Clinton joined Harrison Ford — a longtime member and vice chairman of CI’s board of directors — to discuss international conservation and its role in supporting and stabilizing human societies.
Repeatedly during the 45-minute conversation, each of them hammered home one critical point: It is in our enlightened self-interest to protect nature.
“I am increasingly convinced that in addition to what might be called the kind of traditional and important work that Conservation International and other conservation and environmental organizations have done to raise public attention to focus on specific issues, we now need to broaden the conversation so that it includes matters of national security and human well-being in the most basic way,” Clinton said.
In the discussion, Clinton emphasized that our society is in a race against time to address and mitigate the effects of global climate change, recounting after having witnessed it first-hand the existential struggle of Pacific Island peoples, whose low-lying homelands are urgently threatened with rising sea levels.
Clinton warned about potential conflicts caused by the Arctic ice melt and the resulting competition for oil and mineral resources bordering the North Pole.
And she called important attention to the transboundary impacts on food and water supplies from mega-dams, rapidly being developed along the Mekong River where millions of people in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and China rely on the river’s resources to earn livelihoods and feed their families.
Among all these topics, Secretary Clinton’s passionate words about the dangers of the the illegal wildlife trade particularly connected with me.
“We have a crisis,” she warned, emphasizing the plight of African elephants, hunted and slaughtered for their ivory in an international trade that often arms militant groups and funds organized crime.
“We have a wildlife, poaching, trafficking, murdering crisis. It is not only criminal enterprises, but is carried out by highly armed, vicious bands who sometimes arrive in helicopters with night vision goggles and their assault weapons.”
Elephants, tigers, sharks, turtles and luxury timber species are all highly sought after by this worldwide black market, which rivals the illegal drug trade in some countries, and was described for the first time last month by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime as a “serious organized crime.”
The illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be a multibillion-dollar business. It also is a catalyst for other criminal activities — terrorism, arms trade, drug and human trafficking — that pose significant risk to species, livelihoods and national security around the world.
I was impressed by the measure of her understanding of the problem as well as her emphasis on the need to confront the crisis from multiple directions with a holistic approach, telling those of us in the audience: “We have to go after both supply and demand simultaneously.”
It was encouraging to hear a person with the stature of Secretary Clinton — a respected and experienced figure in the world of foreign policy — advocate for wildlife trade solutions that go beyond the usual means and address both ends of the supply chain.
International conservation groups can help protect wildlife on the supply side of this crisis by working together as a consortium to share responsibilities and support nations that want to save wildlife from poaching but do not have the necessary means.
Meanwhile, countries that provide a market for illegally traded wildlife, including the United States, Clinton said, need to crack down by implementing harsher penalties to deter this illegal practice.
There has recently been some encouraging movement on this front, as Japan and Russia both announced plans to stiffen penalties on citizens convicted of trafficking or smuggling threatened species.
But to save these species, save nations’ natural capital, and indeed, save ourselves, much more needs to be done to win the war on wildlife crime.
Working together to save the natural world that sustains our lives is in all of our enlightened self-interests. I am grateful that Harrison Ford and Secretary Clinton are lending their voices to this message and hopeful that we will hear much more about it from other vital voices in the years ahead.
Kevin Connor is CI’s media manager.