SA Forum is an invited essay from experts on topical issues in science and technology.

Almost daily, it seems, there are new and credible reports about the senseless slaughter of elephants, rhinos or other endangered species by sophisticated wildlife-trafficking networks. Just this spring, news filtered in about a slaughter of forest elephants in the Central African Republic. We have video confirmation of nearly 30 elephants being killed and more wounded. It is clear that poaching is epidemic and is threatening some of the world’s most iconic and endearing species.

Although foreign species may seem like other nations' problem, nothing could be further from the truth. The native species and ecosystems of our planet support billions of people and drive the world's economy. Everyone has a stake in sustaining these fragile ecosystems and species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) plays an essential role in combating global wildlife trafficking. Since the federal budget sequestration took effect in March, however, our ability to carry out this mission has been diminished, just as the situation for endangered species around the globe has become increasingly critical.

The increase in danger to elephants is no surprise. Rising prices for ivory have provoked a skyrocketing level of poaching for African elephants in the wild, resulting in an unprecedented threat to the survival of the species. Thanks to conservation efforts in range countries and global restrictions on ivory trade, elephants had been staging a recovery in many parts of Africa since the 1980s. But poachers, driven by surging Asian demand for elephant ivory, are again pushing elephants toward extinction. As recently as 2008, for example, Tanzania was home to the second-largest population of elephants in Africa, with an estimated 110,000 to 165,000 elephants. By Tanzania’s own counts, however, its most significant population dropped from 70,000 in 2006 to 40,000 by 2009. Today as few as 23,000 elephants may remain.

It is a similar story with rhino populations. Rhino horn, mainly destined for Asia, has historically been used in traditional medicine, primarily as a fever reducer. Recent cultural fads, however, have convinced people in certain countries that rhino horn is an effective treatment for everything from cancer to hangovers. In some countries, objects carved from rhino horn are also regarded as economic status symbols. The result: last year poachers killed 668 of South Africa’s estimated 21,000 rhinos. This year could be worse: through August 7, poachers killed 553 rhinos. All this for a product made of the same stuff as our fingernails.

Not only animals are at risk. Last September five game scouts at Zakouma National Park in Chad were gunned down as they stood in prayer at the beginning of their workday. Poachers can even fuel the destabilization of governments in Africa, creating potential threats to U.S. national security.

One of the things that we know will curb poaching is increased enforcement of laws that prevent trading of illegally obtained wildlife. We saw this last year when we came down hard on people illegally trafficking in rhino horn. The service’s participation in Operation Crash, which is still active, told poachers in no uncertain terms that the U.S. would not tolerate their criminal greed.

The first phase of this probe, which has focused on the unlawful purchase and outbound smuggling of rhino horn from the U.S., has resulted in 14 arrests and seven convictions so far. In raids conducted in February 2012, agents seized 37 rhinoceros horns and products made from horns, such as dagger handles and libation cups. Also seized during the course of the operation were approximately $1 million in cash and another $1 million in gold ingots, as well as diamonds and Rolex watches.

The U.S. is a leader in the fight against wildlife crime. We use our wildlife laws to keep this country from becoming a significant transit point and destination for such trafficked wildlife items as elephant ivory, rhino horn, tiger bone, sea turtle shell, endangered butterflies, shahtoosh wool, and certain live reptiles, amphibians and corals. 

But the federal budget sequestration is limiting our law-enforcement capability at the very time we need it most. Our Office of Law Enforcement already has 63 vacant positions for special agents—the men and women on the front lines of preventing wildlife crime. With sequestration, FWS had to cancel plans to hire a class of 24 officers to begin filling these jobs. As a result, we will be able to carry out fewer investigations of wildlife trafficking, and we may have to postpone plans to station agents overseas in countries that are either suppliers of or markets for elephant ivory, rhino horn and other contraband. 

We currently have 216 special agents—about the same level as in 1978, although the job is so much harder. The number of protected species has increased more than 60 percent, and wildlife trafficking today involves well-organized criminal syndicates taking advantage of the latest technologies to operate on a global basis. We also have vacancies in our wildlife inspector ranks, which we will not be able to fill. These are the folks on the ground at ports of entry, checking imports and exports and intercepting illegal trafficking.

We are focusing the resources we have, to the best of our ability, on the actions that will enable us to achieve our conservation mission. But we could do so much more to give wildlife a chance against poachers. We must ask ourselves where our priorities lie. Is the sequestration really worth a world where the only reminders of our most spectacular and treasured wildlife are a few carved tchotchkes?