In late 2011, David Lawson — Afghanistan Country Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) — visited an on-base bazaar at Camp Eggers, a U.S. military base in Kabul, Afghanistan. There he found some troubling products for sale: a stone marten skull and a sheepskin jacket with a Eurasian wolf fur collar. Both the stone marten (Martes foina) and Eurasian wolf (Canis lupus lupus) are officially protected species by the Afghanistan Wildlife Executive Committee.
Though Lawson’s find was disturbing, it actually made the conservation community happy because it reflected progress in the battle against wildlife trafficking. A visit to Camp Eggers just three years earlier, in 2008, yielded 230 items made from a variety of species including Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), wildcat (Felis silvestris), Blanford’s fox (Vulpes cana), and colobus monkey (Colobus guereza), all of which are protected under Afghan law (Kretser et al. 2012). As Lawson discovered, the sale of such wildlife products is clearly on the decline.
This success is due in large part to a partnership between the Department of Defense (DoD) and WCS, a global conservation organization working in more than 60 countries. In 2007, WCS began collaborating with military police at U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq to curb the sale of products made from threatened and endangered wildlife. With funding from DoD’s Legacy Resources Management Program and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), WCS has been providing pre-deployment and in-theater training to thousands of U.S. military personnel abroad, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. The training is designed to end the supply of and demand for wild- life products on U.S. military bases, and to ensure that DoD operations are in compliance with U.S. and military laws.
United States military personnel often serve in countries of ecological importance, as is the case in Afghanistan and Iraq. Local and on-base markets in these nations often sell wildlife products such as fur coats, skins, and horns, which military personnel may buy as souvenirs. Demand for these products poses one of the greatest threats to wildlife populations by fueling unsustainable harvest and threatening endangered species with local and regional extirpation (Bennett 2011).
Most soldiers who buy wildlife products are not aware of the regulations governing wildlife trade or of the possible consequences for species. It’s there- fore essential that military personnel become aware of the risks and avoid wildlife purchases while serving overseas. To increase awareness, WCS and DoD have created a targeted education program for military personnel deploying from the U.S. and for military police on foreign bases.
The View from Afghanistan
Afghanistan has a long tradition of trading furs. The nation has nine species of wild cats (the same number as in sub-Saharan Africa), including the endangered snow leopard (Uncia uncia), the leopard (Panthera pardus), and the Pallas’ cat (Otocolobus manul). Several popular markets frequented by U.S. contractors and foreign diplomats in Kabul are known to carry products from wild cats and other species including Marco Polo sheep (Ovis ammon), ibex (Capra sibirica), urial (Ovis vignei), and black and brown bears (Ursus thibetanus and Ursus arctos) (Mishra and Fitzherbert 2004, Kanderian et al. 2011).
In 2006, WCS confirmed that local vendors at Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base and Camp Eggers were selling wildlife items made of threatened and endangered species, and that U.S. military personnel were transporting such items home. The most common products were fur coats and pelts, many of which cost more than $300. That may be inexpensive for such products in the U.S., but it’s significant money for local Afghan vendors—reportedly equivalent to more than one-third of the yearly salary of an average government worker (Wikipedia 2009).
To gauge the extent of the problem, in June 2008 WCS staff conducted a short survey of soldiers returning to Fort Drum in New York and found that more than 40 percent of respondents either purchased or had seen other military personnel buy wildlife products. Only 12 percent of respondents were aware of CITES regulations prohibiting such trade (Kretser et al. 2012). The most-frequently purchased goods included furs, pelts, and products made from ivory. In addition wildlife products were most frequently found in places like Afghanistan, Korea, and Iraq (Kretser et al. 2012). These survey results, combined with evidence from market visits, prompted DoD to award WCS four contracts to develop a comprehensive training program.
Training to Stop Trafficking
To date, WCS has conducted multiple trainings for military personnel and soldiers abroad and in the U.S. For military police in Afghanistan, WCS staff teaches the following:
WCS-Afghanistan staff display and discuss confiscated wildlife parts to demonstrate techniques for determining whether a product is really from wildlife (e.g., bone or ivory vs. synthetic materials) and if that wildlife is prohibited from trade. Sometimes vendors will attempt to make fur from a common species look more like coveted cat fur by adding fake spots. If an item is found to be permissible, customs officers complete the proper paperwork.
Markets may appear weekly or monthly, with frequency dependent on security concerns. Military police are trained to walk through markets to inspect goods. Using the same techniques for clearing items in customs, military police examine products in vendor stalls.
To encourage compliance among vendors, WCS trainers suggest that when military police suspect that an item contains parts of protected species, they ask the vendors to help identify the species if possible, and to remove the item from the stall so no one can purchase it. This serves as a “first warning.” If military police catch the vendor re-introducing the item, or selling other specimens that are considered prohibited, vendors will lose their license for operating on base. Most vendors need only one warning to clean their stalls, as the on-base bazaars can be an excellent source of income.
Ideally the trainings of military police in Afghanistan coincide with in-country training for the influx of new servicemen and women, who arrive on a six- to nine-month rotation. However, security conditions often prevent access to military bases by WCS staff. In response, WCS staff based in the U.S. now provide pre- deployment training at bases such as New York’s Fort Drum and West Point, and also send training materials to Afghanistan and Iraq for distribution in-theater. Created with funding from the DoD Legacy program, these materials include fact sheets, brochures, PowerPoint presentations, online materials, “Smart Cards” (small pocket-sized pamphlets), and an award-winning training video titled “Caught in the Crosshairs” and narrated by actor and director Edward Norton, the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity. These materials cover the following:
Most U.S. military personnel are unfamiliar with the diverse wild- life and habitats found in other countries, so the training materials provide an overview of biodiversity in various regions, and of the impacts that illegal wildlife trade can have on species and ecosystems. Soldiers learn that all nine species of Afghanistan’s wild cats are protected, and that some wildlife populations elsewhere have nearly been driven to extinction in large part because of illegal wild- life trade. The black rhino (Diceros bicornis), for example, is extinct in at least 18 African countries, with global rhino populations down from 75,000 in the early 1970s to around 11,000 in recent years. The yearly estimated trade in illegal wildlife worldwide is approximately $14 billion, providing a huge incentive to participate in such markets.
Wildlife Trafficking Law
Military personnel are often unaware of laws governing trade in wildlife products, or that such activities could pose a risk to soldiers who violate the laws. WCS training materials therefore explain how wildlife trade — legal and illegal — can be detrimental to local wildlife populations, environment, communities, and soldiers. Purchase and transport of many wildlife products violates national and international laws and conventions, including the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the Lacey Act, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). U.S. soldiers may face imprisonment and fines of up to $250,000 if found in possession of or attempting to transport illegal wildlife products. In addition, illegal trade in wildlife products is often associated with human trafficking and illegal trade of drugs and arms, following the same black market routes, with profits supporting organized crime.
One common question during training comes from military personnel who want to know what alternative non-wildlife products are available for purchase as gifts for family and friends. WCS suggests items such as carpets, artwork, jewelry, shawls, or other handicrafts — all of which are abundant in nations where troops are stationed abroad.
Expanding the Program
WCS has received a contract from DoD to conduct a military-wide, web-based survey to assess the extent of the demand for wildlife trade products within all branches of the military. This will inform WCS about how to tailor future training materials on wildlife trade to different regions of the world where the military has a presence.
After five years of conducting formal and informal trainings both in the U.S. and abroad, WCS is seeing positive results, not just in markets, but among the attitudes of military personnel. “When I first got here, I was absolutely blind” to illegal wildlife trade, says Sergeant Adam Olivera, 342nd Military Police Detachment, who was stationed at Camp Eggers in 2010. “Coming into country and actually seeing it first-hand has been quite the eye opener, and … has made me take it a lot more seriously.”
Because the military police have learned to take wildlife trade more seriously since WCS trainings began in 2007, the number of items confiscated from soldiers and vendors in Afghanistan has declined, as WCS’s David Lawson observed during his visit to Camp Eggers in December 2011. He also saw that the training program and materials provided by WCS had been institutionalized, with information transferred through at least two rotations of new personnel. “The personnel at Camp Eggers are to be congratulated on keeping things relatively clean,” says Lawson. In addition, the bases in and around Kabul have begun sending training materials to forward operating bases that are too remote and dangerous for WCS staff to visit in person.
Trade in threatened and endangered species persists in the popular markets in Kabul. But raising soldiers’ awareness about wildlife protection laws and how to recognize potentially illegal wildlife products is critical for limiting trade in protected species. “We are proud to be working with DoD on this important project to reduce demand for wildlife products, protect military personnel from inadvertently breaking the law, and protect globally significant wildlife,” says Peter Zahler, WCS’s Deputy Director of Asia Programs. The U.S. military is thus adding a new level of service: reducing military demand for wildlife products to curb local poaching and conserve populations of native wildlife.
Heidi Kretser, Ph.D., is Livelihoods and Conservation Coordinator for the North America Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society.