The United States upped the ante yesterday in the global fight against wildlife trafficking when it unveiled its National Strategy for Combatting Wildlife Trafficking. This initiative is designed to strengthen U.S. enforcement, reduce demand for wildlife products, and expand international cooperation to address the conservation and global security threats posed by the illegal trade in wildlife.
In recent weeks, I’ve been telling you about our work around the world to stop the trade in ivory and rhino horn that drives the slaughter of elephants and rhinos. We’re seeing newfound international resolve on the issue, with the U.S., France, Hong Kong, and China destroying or pledging to destroy their ivory stockpiles, sending a high-profile message to the global community that the ivory trade must stop.
Many of you probably thought that the ivory trade was already banned in the U.S. But the sad truth is that the U.S. is the second largest ivory marketplace after China, partly because it’s legal to trade in “antique” ivory more than 100 years old, ivory imported to the U.S. before Asian and African elephants received protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (1975 and 1990, respectively), or non-elephant ivory such as mammoth ivory. Traffickers claim that ivory from recently poached elephants is antique, and they dye it to make it look old and forge documents to substantiate their claim. Or they traffic elephant ivory as “mammoth ivory” or some other ivory-bearing species because those are not protected by law. The truth is that there is no way for enforcement officers or the public to distinguish old from new ivory, or which species worked ivory comes from. It all adds up to a robust legal and illegal trade of ivory in the U.S.
While the National Strategy will stop import of ivory for commercial purposes, including “antique” ivory, which is an important step, it will not stop domestic sales of antique ivory or ivory that can be demonstrated to have been imported prior to the listing of elephants under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
We applaud these tangible steps forward in attacking the wildlife trade, while noting that additional fixes are still needed to close the remaining ivory trade loopholes. With the support of many local, national, and international groups, we're leading the efforts in Hawaii – one of the largest ivory retailers in the U.S. – to prohibit all ivory sales. We’re going to do the same in New York, backing these state measures as an insurance policy, because it’s just not worth putting elephants at risk in order to preserve a limited trade in antique ivory or ivory imported before certain dates. People can live without it, and we know that even a modest amount of trade is likely to lead to widespread killing of elephants.
On the very day the government made its announcement, we were working with federal and state law enforcement officials in California discussing the ways that poachers and illicit traders use the Internet to move wildlife parts (including ivory) around the globe. On a telephone press conference we did with them, Mike Sutton, a former USFWS special agent and the current president of the California Fish and Game Commission, remarked, “The illegal wildlife trade can be every bit as profitable as the narcotics trade, but less risky.”
There’s much more to be done when it comes to improved legal protection and enforcement effort concerning illegal trafficking in wildlife and wildlife parts. And we’ll use the springboard of these new developments to press the case for animals even further.