NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -- The illegal cutting of timber and the poaching of elephants and rhinos are part of a "rapidly escalating environmental crime wave" that international governments must combat by increasing cooperation, police and environmental officials said Wednesday.
Interpol and the United Nations Environmental Program are working together to stop environmental crimes that cost tens of billions of dollars a year, said Achim Steiner, the U.N. Environmental Program's Executive Director. Some 500 law enforcement and environmental experts from around the world are meeting in Nairobi this week to try to stem the problem.
"This is a global phenomenon. This is a global market place. These are global syndicates, criminals that are engaging in this trade," said Steiner, who labeled the problem "a rapidly escalating environmental crime wave."
The demand for elephant ivory by China's rising middle class is fueling the deaths of thousands of elephants across Africa, say wildlife experts. An estimated 17,000 elephants were illegally killed in Africa in 2011, according to UNEP.
Customs officials in China this week reported busting two smuggling rings responsible for trafficking nearly $100 million worth of elephant ivory from Africa to China, the International Fund for Animal Welfare said Wednesday. The group also said Tanzanian authorities announced this week they had sized 706 tusks from the house of three Chinese traders in Tanzania's capital.
Azzedine Downes, president of IFAW, called on national leaders to commit to developing security task forces to lower environmental crime.
"People from around the world are outraged that organized criminal networks are robbing the world of our elephants, rhinos, tigers and other wildlife, purely for the profit of a very few outlaws," Downes said.
"If range state countries are willing to commit to enforcement that works across national boundaries, our supporters in non-range states are willing to step up and help fund those efforts," Downes said.
Steiner says that UNEP collaborates with China to increase public awareness that demand for ivory results in dead elephants. He said many people in the world don't understand the connection.
Kenya's attorney general, Githu Muigai, speaking at a news conference, noted that Kenyan lawmakers are considering a wildlife conservation bill that greatly increases penalties for poachers and traffickers in Kenya. He said Kenya has seen 90 elephants and 35 rhinos killed by poachers this year.
"Kenya stands at a crossroads as far as environmental criminal activity is concerned," said Muigai, who urged lawmakers to pass the proposed wildlife bill.
A new paramilitary anti-poaching team was formed in Kenya this year, and Muigai said it's having "a very significant deterrent effect."
There is no evidence to prove allegations that terror and militant groups such as Somalia's al-Shabab and Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army are poaching elephants to fund their military activities, said Jean Michel Louboutin, the executive director of police services at Interpol.
"I'm a policeman and to make such an assertion there has to be evidence, and to this stage there is no evidence," Louboutin said.
Affected countries often don't have investigative capacities to follow the environmental crime trail, said UNEP director Steiner. He said he hopes the Nairobi meeting will result in increased law enforcement capacity, because the difference between suspecting such terrorism-wildlife activity and being able to prosecute is "a long distance."
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