2019 END Wildlife Trafficking Report

Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs

Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Act of 2016
PL 114-231, Sec. 201
2019 Report to Congress

The Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt (END) Wildlife Trafficking Act (P.L. 114-231) (the Act) directs the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Commerce, to submit to Congress a report that lists Focus Countries and Countries of Concern, as defined in the Act.

Wildlife trafficking remains a serious transnational crime that threatens security, economic prosperity, the rule of law, long-standing conservation efforts, and human health.  President Trump, in Executive Order 13773, called for a comprehensive and decisive approach to dismantle organized crime syndicates and specifically recognized the connection between wildlife trafficking and transnational criminal organizations.

The Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking (Task Force), co-chaired by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Interior, and the Attorney General, brings together 17 federal departments and agencies to implement the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking (the “National Strategy”).  The USG’s three-pronged approach to combating wildlife trafficking – strengthening law enforcement, reducing demand, and building international cooperation – deprives criminals of a key source of financing, reducing the criminal threat posed to U.S. citizens.

The Task Force’s work to combat wildlife trafficking is making a difference on the ground at home and worldwide.  Task Force efforts and activities are better coordinated across the USG:  efficiencies are identified and exploited, redundancies eliminated, and resources used more strategically; international outreach continues to expand; and improved intelligence has identified new areas of work.  Working in partnership with the private sector, local communities, and NGOs, the United States has led the way globally, securing agreements and commitments from governments and stakeholders at all levels to take urgent action.  Highlights of Task Force efforts are included in the separate Strategic Review, as called for in Sec. 301(d) of the END Wildlife Trafficking Act.

In order to improve accountability and reporting on strategy implementation, the Task Force developed 14 indicators for monitoring USG-supported actions to address wildlife trafficking in Focus Countries.  Ten indicators measure inputs, outputs, or outcomes of law enforcement capacity building and cooperation efforts, policy reform, and demand reduction actions tailored to each country.  Four indicators measure dimensions of how seriously wildlife crime is perceived or addressed in each country.  Task Force members will establish baseline measures for applicable indicators in 2019 and 2020 and will set targets for a subset of indicators to track moving forward.  Indicators monitored in 2019 will be reported in the 2020 Strategic Review.

Focus Countries

Methodology for Determining Original 26 Focus Countries

The Department of State worked closely with the other agencies of the Task Force to employ both qualitative and quantitative information to identify Focus Countries and Countries of Concern, as defined in Section 2 of the Act, for the 2017 END Act Report.  Technical experts and scientists from Task Force agencies established a process to analyze wildlife trafficking information and gathered a set of relevant and available data.  This analysis included evaluation of data drawn from public reporting by USG agencies, international entities such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, as well as NGOs such as the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, TRAFFIC, the Environmental Investigation Agency, and Transparency International.  Information from the required national assessments reinforced and augmented our previous findings.

Task Force agencies, including those represented at U.S. missions overseas, reviewed the initial analysis and provided additional information that was often only available locally.  These country-specific analyses helped to round out the global data, including by providing information on additional species such as felines, primates, and marine species.  Agencies also considered the trajectory of wildlife populations and trafficking’s impact on that trajectory, government and private sector efforts to prevent illegal trade, and the presence of legal or poorly regulated domestic markets for species threatened by wildlife trafficking.

The Task Force further evaluated whether governments had recently taken steps to improve legislation, regulations, and/or enforcement and other trends such that the country is stepping up its efforts to combat the illegal trade in wildlife.

2019 Focus Countries

The Department of State, in consultation with the Departments of the Interior and Commerce, and with USAID, agreed that all of the countries listed as Focus Countries in the 2018 END Act Report should remain.  Each country previously listed continues to be a “major source of wildlife trafficking products or their derivatives, a major transit point of wildlife trafficking products or their derivatives, or a major consumer of wildlife trafficking products,” and designation appears to have contributed to increased attention to combating wildlife trafficking in some Focus Countries.

Consistent with Section 301 of the END Act, U.S. missions in each Focus Country developed a strategic plan, based on the U.S. mission assessment of wildlife trafficking within that country.  U.S. agencies used the strategic plans to guide and coordinate USG approaches and responses to the needs and gaps identified in the Assessment.  The Task Force co-chairs, along with USAID, developed and distributed templates for both the Assessments and Strategic Plans.  All Task Force agencies, both at post and in Washington, were invited to contribute to their development.  The Task Force reviewed for completeness and consistency, recognizing variability based on location in the supply chain, resources within the U.S. Mission, and previous engagement in the issue.

During the past year, U.S. missions in all 26 previously identified Focus Countries completed their Assessments and Strategic Plans.  Together these documents provide an overview of the issues related to wildlife trafficking in that country, identify key areas for strategic intervention by the USG, and either establish a new platform or support existing structures within the mission to guide a coordinated, “whole of USG” approach to interventions.  In some cases, the development of the National Strategy brought together for the first time all USG resources and agencies working in this arena, providing a clear view of the entire landscape of USG support.  For some, the assessments and strategies offered the opportunity to elevate wildlife trafficking as an important security and economic issue, not only within the mission but also within the respective host government.

To assess new potential Focus Countries, the Task Force analyzed a compilation of seizure information derived from government data sets, popular media reports, and other sources that reflect reported illegal wildlife trade seizures around the world.  The analysis focused on data from 2013 to the present for CITES-listed species.  Countries were then ranked by total number of reported seizures, and nine new countries were identified for further review.  The Task Force then requested additional information from the U.S. missions in those countries and jurisdictions.  The additional information was reviewed to determine whether other countries should be added.  This process resulted in adding the following to the list:  Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and Zimbabwe.  The Task Force will work with each mission to complete the required Assessment and Strategy over the course of FY 2020.

This determination is based on our analysis of the statutory criteria in the END Act and does not reflect a positive or negative judgment of the listed countries or indicate that these countries are not working diligently to combat wildlife trafficking.  Indeed, the United States has longstanding partnerships with many of these countries with respect to combating wildlife trafficking and recognizes the strong political will that already exists in many of these countries to tackle this problem.  The Department of State and other Task Force agencies look forward to continuing close and constructive relationships with these countries as we work collaboratively to combat wildlife trafficking.

2019 Focus Country List (in alphabetical order)

  • Bangladesh
  • Brazil
  • Burma
  • Cambodia
  • Cameroon
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Gabon
  • Hong Kong Special Administrative Region
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Kenya
  • Laos
  • Madagascar
  • Malaysia
  • Mexico
  • Mozambique
  • Nigeria
  • People’s Republic of China
  • Philippines
  • Republic of the Congo
  • South Africa
  • Tanzania
  • Thailand
  • Togo
  • Uganda
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Vietnam
  • Zimbabwe

Countries of Concern

Methodology for Identifying Countries of Concern

To identify Countries of Concern as directed by Section 201(b) of the Act, the Department of State, in consultation with the Departments of the Interior and Commerce and other agencies of the Task Force, reviewed publicly available information as well as classified material that indicated the following governments actively engaged in or knowingly profited from the trafficking of endangered or threatened species.  A review of classified, NGO, and open source reporting found insufficient evidence to designate new Countries of Concern.  The situation in the Countries of Concern designated in 2017 remains largely unchanged.  This designation does not indicate that all parts of the government are or have been involved in wildlife trafficking, but there are serious concerns that either high-level or systemic government involvement has occurred.

2019 Countries of Concern (in alphabetical order)

  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Laos
  • Madagascar

Note that this list includes both countries and jurisdictions

 

For more information on U.S. Government efforts in combating wildlife trafficking, please see:

2019 END Wildlife Trafficking Strategic Review

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According to some stakeholders, such engagement with the private sector could help ramp up private investment in domestic PPE manufacturing, among other things. In January 2021, GAO reported that HHS had not developed a process for engaging with key nonfederal stakeholders and Congress for development of a supply chain strategy for pandemic preparedness, including the role of the SNS. GAO recommended that HHS do so, and the department generally agreed with GAO’s recommendation. However, as of May 2021, HHS had not implemented this recommendation. GAO continues to underscore that engaging with key nonfederal stakeholders—in meaningful, proactive ways to obtain their business and industry expertise—and with Congress is critical for developing strategies to build a sustainable domestic medical supply manufacturing base. HHS COVID-19 Funding As of May 31, 2021, Congress had appropriated to HHS approximately $484 billion in COVID-19 funds in six relief laws. The majority of HHS’s appropriations from the first five relief laws had been obligated and about half had been expended. Specifically, as of May 31, 2021, the department reported the following (see figure): Of the $324 billion appropriated in the first five COVID-19 relief laws, about $253 billion had been obligated (about 78 percent) and about $168 billion had been expended (about 52 percent). Of the $160 billion appropriated in the sixth law, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), about $75 billion had been obligated (about 47 percent) and about $3 billion had been expended (about 2 percent). HHS’s Reported COVID-19 Relief Appropriations, Obligations, and Expenditures from COVID-19 Relief Laws, as of May 31, 2021 The percentage of obligations and expenditures varied across selected COVID-19 response activities for a variety of reasons, including the nature of the activities, their planned uses, and the timing of the funds provided through the six COVID-19 relief laws. HHS uses spend plans to communicate information about its COVID-19 spending. The first five COVID-19 relief laws generally require the department to develop, update, and provide these spend plans to Congress every 60 days. The sixth relief law, ARPA, does not require a spend plan, but according to HHS officials, the department is preparing a consolidated plan that captures the first five relief laws and a separate spend plan for funding provided through ARPA. The consolidated spend plan is under internal review at HHS and the ARPA spend plan is still being finalized. As of May 2021, GAO had received and reviewed a total of 15 spend plans—the original spend plans and subsequent updates—provided by HHS. GAO found that the most current spend plans generally do not include time frames for obligating the remaining funds, which is useful information for oversight and informing future funding decisions by Congress. Guidance from the Office of Management and Budget to federal agencies, including HHS, noted the importance of spending transparency and regular reporting to help safeguard taxpayer dollars. GAO recommends that HHS communicate information about, and facilitate oversight of, the department’s use of COVID-19 relief funds by providing projected time frames for its planned spending in the spend plans it submits to Congress. HHS partially concurred with the recommendation and stated that the department would aim to incorporate some time frames on planned spending where that information may be available such as time frames for select grants to states. Higher Education Grants The Department of Education (Education) has faced inherent challenges that increase the risk of improper payments for its Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) grants to institutions of higher education to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19. For example, funding needed to be processed and distributed expeditiously because of health and economic threats to institutions of higher education posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO tested Education’s procedures for approving and processing HEERF grants through a sample of obligations and found that the department had not effectively designed and implemented procedures needed to identify erroneous obligations after awarding the grants. GAO estimated that for 5.5 percent of schools receiving HEERF grants (about 262 of 4,764 schools in GAO’s sample), Education awarded grants that exceeded the amounts allocated—including three instances in GAO’s sample for which Education obligated $20 million more than was allocated. Officials from Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education stated that because of time and staffing constraints and the high volume of grants administered, they did not regularly perform quality assurance reviews after obligation to identify and correct erroneous obligations. GAO recommends Education design and implement procedures for regularly conducting quality assurance reviews of obligated amounts for higher education grants, including HEERF, to help identify and correct erroneous obligations in a timely manner. Education agreed with this recommendation. Coronavirus State and Local Relief and Recovery Funds COVID-19 relief laws appropriated $500 billion to the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) to provide direct funding to states, localities, tribal governments, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories to help them respond to, and recover from, the COVID-19 pandemic. This amount includes $150 billion that the CARES Act appropriated to Treasury for the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) in March 2020 as well as $350 billion that ARPA appropriated to Treasury for the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (CSLFRF) in March 2021. Recipients can use CRF payments to offset costs related to either the pandemic’s direct effects (e.g., public health needs) or its indirect effects (e.g., harm to individuals or businesses as a result of COVID-19-related closures). The CSLFRF provides payments to these recipients to cover a broader range of costs stemming from the fiscal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Single Audit Act establishes requirements for states, localities, Indian tribes, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and nonprofit organizations that receive federal awards to undergo single audits of those awards annually when their expenditures meet a certain dollar threshold. Single audits are critical to the federal government’s ability to help safeguard the use of the billions of dollars distributed through the CRF and CSLFRF. Auditors who conduct single audits follow guidance in the Single Audit Act’s Compliance Supplement, which provides guidelines and policy for performing single audits. After consultation with federal agencies, OMB annually updates and issues the supplement. Auditors have reported that the timing of the supplement is critical in allowing them to effectively plan their work. The timely issuance of single audit guidance is critical to ensuring timely completion and reporting of single audits to inform the federal government about actions needed to help safeguard the use of the billions of dollars distributed through the CRF and CSLFRF. GAO recommends that OMB, in consultation with Treasury, issue timely and sufficient single audit guidance for auditing recipients’ uses of payments from the CSLFRF. OMB neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. Economic Impact Payments The CARES Act, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, and ARPA authorized Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to issue three rounds of economic impact payments (EIP) as direct payments to help individuals alleviate financial stress due to the pandemic. (See figure.) To publicize information about how to file a tax return with the IRS to receive an EIP, IRS partners with organizations that work with communities that may not traditionally interact with IRS, such as lower-income families, senior citizens, veterans, tribal communities, and families with mixed-immigration status. According to officials from IRS partner organizations, ensuring eligible nonfilers receive their payments continues to be a challenge. Partners also told GAO their outreach efforts to nonfilers could be more effective if the partners had current data that could help identify specific communities of nonfilers who may need assistance. Total Number and Amount of Economic Impact Payments (EIP) Disbursed, Rounds 1, 2, and 3, as of May 28, 2021 In January 2021, Treasury began analyzing nearly 9 million notices it had sent to nonfilers who may be eligible for the first round of EIP payments. However, Treasury does not plan to complete this analysis until fall 2021, more than 6 months after the third round of EIP payments began to be issued. This timing would limit the findings’ usefulness for informing EIP outreach efforts. By waiting to complete the analysis, Treasury and IRS are missing an opportunity to identify communities that may have a higher number of nonfilers and to use that information to inform their outreach efforts as well as the efforts of their outreach partners.GAO recommends that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, release interim findings on the effectiveness of the notices it sent in September 2020 to potentially EIP-eligiblenonfilers; incorporate that analysis into IRS outreach efforts as appropriate; and then, if necessary, release an update based on new analysis after the 2021 filing season. Treasury neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. Tax Relief for Businesses To provide liquidity to businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CARES Act and other COVID-19 relief laws included tax measures to reduce certain tax obligations, including measures related to net operating loss carryback claims. In some cases, these reductions of obligations led to cash refunds. The Internal Revenue Code and the CARES Act generally require IRS to issue certain refunds within 90 days from the date when a complete application for a tentative carryback adjustment is filed or 90 days from the last day of the month in which the return is due, whichever is later. IRS data show that the agency is not meeting the statutory refund requirement for these relief measures and that as of May 1, 2021, the average processing time for refunds was 154 days, excluding additional time for final processing and distribution. IRS officials said it is taking longer to process returns because IRS facilities that process paper returns continue to operate at reduced capacity to accommodate social distancing. In the meantime, transparent communication about these issues could help taxpayers know when to expect their refunds. Specifically, an explanation on IRS’s website that processing times for tentative refunds may exceed the expected 90 days because of service disruptions would provide taxpayers with more accurate information and expectations for receiving a refund. GAO recommends that IRS clearly communicate on its website that there are delays beyond the statutory 90-day timeline in processing tentative refunds. IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. 2021 Tax Filing Season IRS is experiencing delays in processing certain returns received in 2021, resulting in extended time frames for processing returns for some taxpayers. IRS reported that it is taking longer than usual to manually review some of these returns. Specifically, as of the end of the 2021 filing season, IRS had about 25.5 million unprocessed individual and business returns, including about 1.2 million returns from its 2020 backlog, and 13.7 million returns that it had suspended because of errors. IRS staff must manually review these returns with errors. IRS typically has unprocessed returns in its inventory at the end of the filing season, but not to this extent. For example, at the end of the 2019 filing season, IRS had 8.3 million unprocessed individual and business returns, including 2.7 million returns suspended for errors. IRS’s annual tax filing activities include processing more than 150 million individual and business tax returns electronically or on paper. With significantly more returns currently being held for manual review than in prior years, more taxpayers are trying to get information about the status of their returns and refunds. However, taxpayers have had difficulty obtaining status updates on their refunds from IRS, either by phone or online. IRS’s website does not contain all of the relevant information regarding delays in processing 2021 returns and issuing taxpayers’ refunds. Additionally, IRS’s automated message on its toll-free telephone line for individual taxpayers has not been updated to explain refund delays or to include any other alerts associated with the 2021 filing season.GAO recommends that IRS update relevant pages of its website and, if feasible, add alerts to its toll-free telephone lines to more clearly and prominently explain the nature and extent of individual refund delays occurring for returns that taxpayers filed in 2021. IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. This report contains additional recommendations related to disseminating information related to leave benefits for employees. Why GAO Did This Study As of mid-June 2021, the U.S. had about 33.4 million reported cases of COVID-19 and about 593,000 reported deaths, according to CDC. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions from the pandemic. Six relief laws, including the CARES Act, had been enacted as of May 31, 2021, to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. As of May 31, 2021, of the $4.7 trillion appropriated by these six laws for COVID-19 relief—including about $1.6 trillion appropriated by ARPA, which was enacted in March 2021—the federal government had obligated a total of $3.5 trillion and had expended $3.0 trillion, as reported by federal agencies. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines the federal government’s continued efforts to respond to, and recover from, the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO reviewed data, documents, and guidance from federal agencies about their activities. GAO also interviewed federal officials; representatives from organizations for states and localities; and other stakeholders, including manufacturers of PPE (e.g., N95 respirators, surgical masks, and nitrile gloves).
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