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Friday, December 05, 2014

Defense Bill Takes Aim at Wildlife Trafficking

As poaching of animals rages on in Africa, threatening the very existence of some of our planet’s most iconic species, we in the United States must do still more to tackle the issue of wildlife trafficking both at home and abroad.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported in August that poachers killed an estimated 100,000 elephants in just three years across Africa—a shocking average of 90 elephants a day. Last month, South Africa announced that 1,020 rhinos have been killed there so far this year, already surpassing the number of animals killed in 2013.


The stakes are high, not only for these imperiled species but also for African governments and local communities whose economic livelihoods and natural heritage have been brutally robbed and where the rule of law has been compromised—because of poaching—as well as for our own national security interests.

Transnational criminal syndicates and Africa-based terrorist groups are using the illegal wildlife trade to finance their nefarious operations. At $8-10 billion per year, the illegal wildlife trade ranks as the fourth most lucrative criminal activity internationally, behind only narcotics, counterfeiting, and human trafficking.

President Obama issued an executive order last year that declared wildlife trafficking a matter of national interest and announced a national strategy to address the increasing pressure on imperiled species and the growing connection between poaching and global terrorism.

Many members of Congress also recognize the urgency of the current poaching crisis. To better address the security challenges posed by the illicit wildlife trade, the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes language authorizing the Department of Defense to partner with civilian law enforcement on joint task forces to combat wildlife trafficking.

This provision will aid in the disruption of wildlife trafficking networks, through strengthened and improved coordination among the intelligence, military, judicial, customs and law enforcement agencies. The House yesterday passed the NDAA package by a vote of 300-119, and the Senate plans to take up the legislation next week.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, has introduced another bill to turn up the heat on poachers: H.R.5454, the Targeted Use of Sanctions for Killing Elephants in their Range (TUSKER) Act. The legislation would force countries that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) has identified as significant source, transit, or destination countries for illegal ivory to immediately enter into consultation with the U.S. And if any country fails, it will face trade sanctions by the U.S. under the Pelly amendment.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to announce a proposed rule that would institute a near-complete ban on the commercial sale and import of elephant ivory in the U.S. This proposed national policy would build on the actions of the states to dry up the demand for ivory here in our country, arguably the second largest retail ivory market in the world after China.

Collectively, these are important actions by foresighted policymakers who are representing the values of the American public and seeking to save some of the most iconic species on the planet from the brink of extinction. But as with many issues, there are myopic politicians who try to stand in the way of progress, and some members of Congress are intent on undermining domestic efforts to save elephants from the blood ivory trade.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Reps. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Jeff Miller, R-Fla., introduced the so-called “Lawful Ivory Protection Act” (S.2587/H.R.5052) which would handcuff the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and prevent the administration from carrying out any new action to restrict the ivory trade. The House Interior spending bill for fiscal year 2015 also includes language that would block funding for any new agency attempt to limit the illicit trade in ivory. (The fate of this pro-trafficking language will be determined when the House and Senate work out a final appropriations bill.)

How can these members of Congress side with those who profit in ivory trading over beleaguered elephants and fragile African government partners and communities? How can they lament the ability of someone to resell a gun or a guitar with a little bit of ivory on it, without regard for the fate of the largest land mammal in the world or our national security?

At this critical time, we must do everything in our power to curb wildlife trafficking and turn back the tide on the elephant poaching crisis. It is an urgent and pressing struggle, one that must be waged and won in the course of the next few years.

As Matthew Scully wrote in The Atlantic, “This is ground we cannot afford to surrender, the final refuge of animals who mourn their own, and deserve more than to be let go and mourned by us. We would miss the elephants, forever, with only regrets and recollections to fill the space, these grand, peaceable fellow creatures whose final, bloody departure from the earth would warrant a rebuke of Old Testament proportions: ‘What is this that thou hast done?’”


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