The Antiquities Coalition is dedicated to combating cultural racketeering, a multibillion-dollar global industry that closely parallels the poaching and trafficking of wildlife. These illicit trades seek to extinguish the cultural and biological diversity that shapes the world we share. Wildlife and antiquities trafficking pose a grave threat to communities’ futures, often directly funding criminal and violent extremist groups, weakening local economic viability, and ultimately destroying entire ways of life.
Our team joined the conversation at a recent bipartisan event at the United States Institute of Peace, discussing U.S. government efforts to combat wildlife trafficking and terrorist financing in southern Africa. Representative Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and former chairman of the Africa subcommittee, and Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on African Affairs, underscored the need for civic engagement, sustainable development, and strong law enforcement to combat illicit trades worldwide. Trafficking networks are a global phenomena, which will require multidisciplinary strategies to dismantle. A few key takeaways:
Short Term Cash vs. Long-Term Gain
As with those working in cultural heritage, the conservation community finds itself competing with industrial expansion and the lure of fast cash for a voice in development policy. Poverty exacerbates the need to provide for one’s family, driving people toward extremes, such as poaching or looting, to generate income. Yet, combating the illicit trade does not need to be a zero-sum game in which human development conflicts with preservation efforts. Rather, smart development, alongside conservation and adequate legal structures, can help build a system that ensures a better future for humans, animals, and heritage alike.
Communities must see value in the long-term existence of biodiversity and cultural heritage if both are to be preserved. Congressmen Royce and Coons pointed to Yellowstone, which annually attracts four million visitors and generates over $680 million in revenue, as a tangible conservation model for African community leaders. Yellowstone, and the National Park Service more broadly, enhances American credibility and serves as living proof of the income- and legacy-generating value of nature preserves. Similarly, heritage sites worldwide—from Inca fortresses in the Andes to temple complexes of East Asia and ancient cities in the Middle East—generate vital tourist income for local communities. Once looted or destroyed, these sites, and their long-term income-generating potential, are lost forever.
Trafficking is a dangerous business. Wildlife and antiquities trafficking fund organized crime and violent extremism, and often result in the murder or disappearance of those concerned citizens who try to protect at-risk animals and heritage sites. Conservationists in southern Africa often work with third-generation park rangers and the children of rangers who have lost their lives to wildlife traffickers. While the global demand for wildlife goods may be decreasing, this downward trend has been matched with an increase in terrorists’ firepower, particularly among groups such as Al-Shabaab and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Transnational trafficking networks do not care how they are making money, what they are moving, or how many human lives are lost in the process. Supplying grassroots resistors with adequate resources, including satellite tracking equipment, defenses, and forensic technology, is essential to the fight against trafficking.
The Collective Cost
Whereas the poaching and trafficking of iconic species such as elephants, tigers, and rhinoceroses is most likely to make headlines, the illicit wildlife trade in fact encompasses thousands of species, both plant and animal, moving in high volume and threatening to destabilize ecosystems worldwide. Reductions in biodiversity have a ripple effect throughout the environment, and contribute to climate change, accelerate desertification, and endanger human livelihoods. Similarly, we find that the high-volume trade in small, portable, easily concealed, and relatively low-value antiquities is less likely to make headlines than the trafficking of major works of ancient art, but is more difficult to police and arguably more destructive to the historical record.
Neither wildlife trafficking nor cultural racketeering is limited to faraway places; both take shape in the United States as well. For example, in 2017 in Los Angeles, California, Operation Jungle Book resulted in federal criminal charges against sixteen defendants who participated in a cross-border wildlife smuggling scheme. Likewise in 2016, prominent antiquities dealer Nancy Wiener was arrested on charges relating to looted and trafficked antiquities. The list of cases goes on. Combating the illicit trade requires multilateral coordination, engaging stakeholders in the United States and abroad to disincentivize and dismantle these networks piece by piece. Progress in combating the illicit trades in wildlife and antiquities underscores that it is possible, even across borders, conflict zones, and languages, to enact sweeping measures that protect some of our world’s most valuable resources.
At the domestic level, legislation can be a valuable tool in combating illicit trades. Laws such as the Delta Act (H.R. 4819) and BUILD Act of 2018 (H.R. 5105/S. 2463) strive to disincentivize wildlife trafficking by promoting inclusive economic growth through conservation and biodiversity programs, and by sustainably supporting the broader economic development of countries in need. In the antiquities realm, new legislation such as the Illicit Art and Antiquities Trafficking Protection Act (H.R. 5886) will help close the $26.6 billion American art market to money laundering, terrorist financing, and other crimes by removing the art market’s exemption from standard regulations.
Senator Coons, along with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), is also presently drafting a bill to address the confluence of terrorism, poor governance, and internal conflict, all of which impact a country’s vulnerability to illicit trade. Senator Coons argued that resolution of these issues must be married to development and diplomatic strategies, and that working together with NGOs, diplomats, and those on the Hill is imperative.
As Representative Royce retires, the Antiquities Coalition commends him for years of service to people at home and abroad, and wishes him all the best in this next chapter.