In as emphatic an electoral triumph as you will see in American politics, Washington voters approved I-1401, giving the measure decisive majorities in every one of the state’s 39 counties. The measure to criminalize the trade in the parts of 10 different species and taxa of terrestrial and marine species was approved by a vote of 71 to 29 percent, with the percentage likely to creep up a bit as more ballots are counted in the populous counties with late vote-by-mail tallies.
I-1401 was the first statewide ballot measure on the subject of global wildlife trafficking, and it just so happened to be the most comprehensive proposal considered in any state – covering not just elephants and rhinos, but also lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, pangolins, sea turtles, sharks, and rays.
I extend our greatest appreciation to Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist, who conceived of the measure and put his shoulder and resources behind it. The HSUS was delighted to partner with him on this project, and we look forward to conducting similar efforts in other states, starting with Oregon, where we’ve already launched a similar campaign.
The Washington vote was a drubbing for the NRA and for ivory traders who succeeded in blocking a less ambitious measure in the state capitol in Olympia earlier this year. Despite their opposition, animal protectionists were also able to pass a ban last month on the commercial trade in ivory and rhino horn in California – the most important place to do it, given the significant size of its in-state market for ivory and rhino horn products. But the NRA and other pro-ivory groups blocked carefully crafted measures in more than a half dozen other states, including in Oregon.
The NRA and other advocates and defenders of the ivory trade have been active in Congress, too. With President Obama declaring that he wants to significantly curtail the trade in ivory through federal rulemaking, Republican lawmakers inserted a provision in the proposed House Interior spending bill to block the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from finalizing any such rule. We are working with some Republicans and most of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses to nix that provision in the final spending package. We don’t expect it to be retained in any form, in part because President Obama would veto any spending bill with a poison pill for a regulatory action he clearly cares about.
But the Washington vote should be a wake-up call for all of those politicians at the state and federal level who have sided with the idea of tolerating the domestic ivory trade or who believe it’s okay to trade in other parts from endangered animals. The overwhelming passage of I-401 makes clear that this is not a left-center-or-right issue. It’s a right-and-wrong issue. This is an issue of protecting the most majestic species in the world, and making sure that people understand that there is some small amount of sacrifice within our borders required to protect these species. The reason that poachers kill animals is to sell the parts in consumer countries. The House this week, with bi-partisan support from Republicans and Democrats, did favor the Global Anti-Poaching Act, championed by House Foreign Affairs committee Chair Ed Royce and Ranking member Eliot Engel, to strengthen the U.S. response to wildlife trafficking and to upgrade penalties and to treat trafficking of illegal wildlife on this scale as a racketeering activity. I applaud the House and Senate for strengthening anti-poaching enforcement activities, but that effort must be linked with efforts in the United States and other consuming countries to criminalize sales of the products at home. China is the biggest consumer of ivory, and the United States is second.
This is not just an issue of protecting animals, as worthy a purpose as that is. It’s an issue of fighting terrorists and other criminals who are slaughtering these animals to turn their body parts into cash. It’s also an issue of economic security for African and Asian nations whose greatest natural resource is the wildlife that inhabit their protected areas. Those goals warrant restricting trade in the United States and pushing people into selling facsimiles of ivory or other beautiful and durable cruelty-free products that can decorate homes or adorn us as jewelry.
In yesterday’s election day outcome, we didn’t just win in Seattle and the rest of the Puget Sound area. We won in every county in the state – every Republican-leaning and Republican-dominated county in Washington, which butts up against Idaho in the East.
Every lawmaker who stood in the way of the anti-ivory-trade bill in the legislature earlier this year should take stock of what his or her constituents said. They said, and clearly, “we actually support a much tougher statewide policy than you considered in the capitol. We want reform. Get out of the way.” Voters in every single state house, state senate, and Congressional district favored I-1401. Ironically for the ivory-trading set, their success in blocking a more limited bill delivered a much more sweeping policy for the state, and set a precedent for the rest of the nation to heed.
Lawmakers who continue to carry the water of the NRA do so at some political peril, because they are defying the people of their state. Washington provided the first hard measure of where voters stand on the issue. They heard the arguments of the ivory dealers and the gun and ammo lobby, and they rejected those arguments. Gun owners, Republicans, older men, and younger men all rejected those arguments, along with every other demographic group.
People want to protect elephants, rhinos, and other creatures. And they are tired of the selfish, self-centered arguments of opponents, who say the restrictions are too burdensome or unnecessary or impact private property rights. Let’s hope last night’s vote is yet another turning point – on top of China’s joining of our global movement – against wildlife trafficking. Time for all of politicians to read the election results, recognize ivory and other endangered-animal body parts as contraband, and join the movement to protect the marvelous creatures who share our planet and enrich it with their mere existence.