Trump administration begins internal review of grants to wildlife organizations accused of abuse

Trump administration begins internal review of grants to wildlife organizations accused of abuse
© Greg Nash

The Department of the Interior has launched an internal review into the millions of dollars in grants provided to an international wildlife organization where guards have been accused of committing human rights violations.

Interior, in a letter sent last week to the House Natural Resources Committee, which has requested grant details, said the human rights abuse allegations against employees are "troubling" and "warrant an in-depth inquiry."

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A BuzzFeed News investigation published in March revealed that local guards and rangers associated with the World Wide Fund of Nature (WWF) allegedly participated in the abuses of indigenous communities, including rape, torture and murder. The community residents live near the wildlife parks that the guards are charged with protecting.

"The Department and FWS [Fish and Wildlife Service] understand the importance of preventing wildlife trafficking while maintaining the human dignity of all people, including indigenous populations that often rely on the land in designated conservation areas for subsistence and preservation of their cultural heritage," the letter said.

Documents obtained by BuzzFeed News revealed the U.S. government has provided WWF with $157 million in the last 15 years, after Interior declined to provide specific funding amounts for WWF to the news outlet. Out of that, $10 million was given to "armed guards, rangers and enforcement."

Documents uncovered earlier this year indicated WWF intended to pay for "informant networks," which the letter says would be a "direct contradiction to the terms of the grant awards and federal law." These allegations have not been verified by the department, according to the letter.

The letter indicated $22.5 million in grants remained on hold, but a spokesperson told The Hill that "a few" of those grants were reestablished because "we feel confident the proper controls are in place."

"The Department has been working with the House Natural Resource Committee to ensure that taxpayer dollars dedicated to combat wildlife trafficking are not supporting human rights violations," a department spokesperson said.

The spokesperson added that the agency is holding "certain grants until we are assured the funds will be spent appropriately."

WWF has also started an investigation into the allegations.

A WWF spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill that the organization has a "long history" of working with the United States government to promote conservation and intends to continue the relationship.

“Our U.S. government-funded projects are designed to meet the requirements of our U.S. government donors and fully comply with federal laws," the spokesperson said in an email. "We have and will continue to work closely with Congress and relevant agencies to ensure conservation efforts support the well-being of both people and nature."

— Updated 12:58 p.m.