The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it will consider increasing Endangered Species Act protections for elephants and pangolins, two species whose populations have declined drastically in recent decades due to murderous and unrelenting poaching, habitat destruction, and trophy hunting. The announcement, made today, follows petitions submitted by Humane Society International, The HSUS, and other animal protection organizations asking FWS to uplist African elephants from “threatened” to “endangered” – the latter a stricter designation that will restrict trade and make it more difficult for poachers to traffic in the parts of the animals – and to list seven unlisted species of pangolins as “endangered” as well.
In 1978, when FWS listed the African elephant as “threatened,” there were at least 1.3 million African elephants still in existence. Today, that number has dropped to about 400,000, according to best estimates. That’s a decline of roughly 60 percent. The African elephant has also lost over 50 percent of its habitat during this time, and poaching is thought to claim the lives of 35,000 of these animals every year. Though we’ve made some recent progress in confronting this crisis, elephants are also being hammered by foreign hunters: between 2003 and 2012 globe-trotting trophy hunters killed an estimated 15,518 African elephants and brought home their favorite parts for display.
Pangolins, considered to be the most trafficked mammal in the world, face an equally serious set of threats. These distinctive-looking animals protect themselves from natural predators by rolling into a tight ball, but that makes them easy prey for poachers who can pick them up like soccer balls to satisfy a demand for their scales and meat in Asia. It is estimated that over one million pangolins were taken illegally from the wild in the past decade. Currently, four Asian pangolin species are listed as “critically endangered” or “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list. Since the depletion of Asian pangolin populations – by 90 percent in some cases – the market has shifted to African species, and four African species threatened with extinction are being increasingly targeted to supply the demand in Asia.
The killing is happening at an astonishing rate. In November last year, authorities seized nearly 3,000 dead pangolins in Guangdong, China, only a few months after 10 tons of pangolin scales —equal to about 7,000 pangolins — were seized in a massive bust in India. Two tons of scales, brought in from Nigeria, were seized in Hong Kong in March 2015.
The United States has done a creditable job in stopping and seizing illicit pangolin products coming to our shores. Over the last decade, federal agents intercepted 29,000 “medicinal” products derived from pangolins on their way into the country. But there is often difficulty in determining what species imported specimens were derived from and there remains an urgent need for global leadership to heighten protection to curtail the black market trade in pangolins and their products. Only one of the eight pangolin species—the Cape pangolin—is currently listed under the ESA. Listing all pangolins as endangered would enable authorities to take enforcement action against sellers of pangolin products, no matter what species they were derived from—effectively closing the U.S. market for pangolins.
Our government has also taken several steps to address the elephant poaching and ivory trafficking crisis, and to address unsustainable elephant trophy imports. In 2013 and 2015, FWS publicly destroyed several tons of ivory, an example followed by many countries. Last year, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that both countries will work to enact nearly complete bans on the import and export of ivory. FWS also proposed to amend the existing regulations for African elephants to prohibit interstate commerce in ivory (with some exceptions) and restrict the import of African elephant trophies.
The HSUS and HSI are also fighting this battle in the courts, and we recently filed an amicus curiae brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in defense of the FWS decision to take a hard look at whether the import of elephant trophies from Tanzania should continue, due to concerns about the negative impact of trophy hunting on elephants in that country.
While all of these steps are in the right direction, there is no doubt that a federal uplisting in Endangered Species Act status for elephants and pangolins would go a long way in the conservation of these two classes of animals under siege. It’s time to mount our best defense for them, and that’s why we want the FWS to act fast and give them the strictest possible protection under the law.