Remarks by Ambassador William A. Heidt at the National Roundtable on Countering Wildlife Trafficking

Cambodiana Hotel, Phnom Penh
June 20, 2017
(as prepared for delivery)

Your Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. Good morning and thank you for inviting me to participate in this National Roundtable on Countering Wildlife Trafficking.

I would like to thank His Excellency Kim Sontepheap, Under-Secretary of State from the Ministry of Justice for hosting us here today. I would also like to welcome representatives of the Supreme Court, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, General Department of Customs and Excise, Ministry of Interior, the Military Police, and the Anti-Corruption Unit.

I am delighted to be working together again with Ross Sinclair and Sarah Brooks from the Wildlife Conservation Society, as well as representatives from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

And finally thank you to our participants from World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Alliance, Conservation International, Fauna & Flora International, Free the Bears and our distinguished colleagues from the Embassies of the U.K., Germany, France, China, Vietnam and the EU delegation.

I want to make just two substantive points in my remarks today. First, I want to speak about Cambodia’s amazing wildlife and why it is important to protect and preserve it. Then I want to touch on the ongoing shift in global wildlife trafficking and the implications for Cambodia.

Cambodia’s Remarkable Wildlife

The first point is an obvious one. As all of us know, Cambodia has amazing wildlife and beautiful forests. It is home to the endangered Asian elephant, threatened primate species likes the yellow-checked crested gibbon and the black-shanked douc, the critically endangered giant ibis, and the Siamese crocodile. And let’s not forget the Mekong dolphin.

The fact that I used the word “endangered” several times in that last sentence, however, gives you some idea of what is at stake. The country’s wildlife, and the habitats that sustain them, remain under threat. If these processes are allowed to play out unchecked, a part of what makes Cambodia special will be lost.
Let me give one example. All around the country, I’ve noticed that many homes, businesses, and government offices have paintings of idyllic wildlife scenes – often images of Angkorian temples with elephants and other animals in the foreground.

These scenes testify to the importance of Cambodia’s environment in the culture of its people. But what will it mean if the only elephants left in Cambodia are in these paintings?

In the United States, we hunted the bald eagle, the animal displayed on our national seal, nearly to extinction over a century ago. It took concerted efforts by the government – including banning certain pesticides and strengthening regulations and enforcement – to bring the bald eagle back from the brink of extinction.

Today many people have the chance to admire bald eagles in our national parks around the country, and they are no longer considered an endangered species. With proper protection, the same thing can happen for Cambodia’s endangered wildlife.

Protecting wildlife also makes economic sense. The economic potential for ecotourism in Cambodia is only just now being explored, with some terrific projects in Koh Kong, Stung Treng, Kratie, Mondulkiri, and other provinces. Many are operated by organizations represented in this room.

If properly managed and promoted, ecotourism could generate income for the government and for some of Cambodia’s most remote communities in a sustainable fashion. Cambodia could become the leading ecotourism destination in Southeast Asia.

Global Wildlife Trafficking Patterns Are Changing

My second point is about international wildlife trafficking. Over the past four or five years, there has been a global shift in perceptions of international wildlife trafficking, as well as a shift in approaches to countering it.

This change is driven by the realization that wildlife trafficking not only threatens the survival of many species around the world, but also threatens the security and stability of many countries. The upsurge of large-scale seizures of elephant and rhino products demonstrates that the involvement of organized criminal groups is on the rise.

Illicit wildlife trade has become extremely lucrative and in many countries, undermines the rule of law, fuels corruption, and finances armed groups engaged in cross-border conflicts. It has devastating economic and social consequences for affected communities.

You may be thinking that these problems don’t affect Cambodia. But this is no longer true. The truth is, Cambodia is emerging as a significant transit country for illegal wildlife trade.

There have been at least five or six large seizures of African ivory, rhino horn, and other illegal products in recent years in Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville. As a result, there are large amounts of confiscated ivory, rhino horn, and other illegal wildlife products in Cambodia.

For these reasons, we believe the time is right for Cambodia to work more closely with its international partners to combat wildlife trafficking and to adhere to its obligations under the CITES treaty.

Not taking action is no longer an option. Countries around the world, big and small, are increasing their enforcement actions against the illegal wildlife trade. Here are a couple of examples:

  • The United States and China, the two largest destination countries for consumption, have recently implemented new laws banning the sale and trade of ivory. Both have organized large, public ivory crushes in the past few years.
  • Nepal recently destroyed a large stockpile of wildlife products that included ivory, rhino horn, lion and tiger skins, and many other endangered and protected species.
  • In November 2016, Vietnam also burned a large stock pile of rhino horn and ivory.

The fact that Cambodia successfully seized the shipments I noted above is excellent news, and speaks to the close cooperation between Cambodia and its international partners, including the United States. But very honestly, the fact that the two major destination countries in East Asia have now taken strong enforcement action puts pressure on Cambodia.

I would encourage Cambodia to follow international best practices by beginning to destroy its stockpiles of confiscated wildlife products. This would send a strong message to traffickers and to the global audience that Cambodia is committed to playing its part to combat wildlife trafficking.
I want to close with three simple suggestions for participants in this roundtable:

  • First, Cambodia is not alone on this issue. United States and the international community can offer significant assistance if Cambodia wants to strengthen its enforcement activities. So I hope you will consider today how you might best work with your international partners.
  • Second, we know from our own experience that enforcing wildlife laws and treaties touches on the interests of many different agencies. In the United States, we created a National Task Force to coordinate this work. Cambodia may find it needs a regular, coordinating process or body as well. Perhaps this roundtable could become a regular event?
  • And finally, I hope our friends in the Cambodian government will consider seriously my comments about ecotourism. Cambodia still has a lot of forest cover and some remarkable wildlife. It really would be possible to brand Cambodia as Asia’s ecotourism capital . It would take some hard work, but the benefits could be very large.

Thank you again for joining this roundtable today. I hope the discussions will help strengthen efforts to protect wildlife here in Cambodia and throughout the world.

Thank you very much.