In recent days, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval has signed a series of animal protection bills into law, including a measure to crack down on wildlife trafficking. It’s the latest example of policy makers and animal advocates teaming up to stop the killing of wild animals for small parts of their bodies, such as fins or tusks, for trade. The poachers and the traders, to be sure, display a blend of callousness and greed. Moreover, when you aggregate their acts of killing, these traffickers collectively threaten the viability of species, ecological systems, and thriving economic enterprises. Killing by a thousand cuts, these poachers are the robber barons of nature, threatening to denude the Earth of some of its most extraordinary and valuable works.
The toll that poachers and wildlife traders take on the natural world is staggering and nearly incalculable. Tens of thousands of elephants are slaughtered annually for their ivory. More than a thousand rhinos are killed for their horns (with only 28,000 rhinos of all species surviving). Tens of millions of sharks are hacked up and left for dead just for their fins.
The global commerce in wildlife parts adds up to tens of billions of dollars, with the revenues from this activity eclipsed only by drug trafficking, the arms trade, and just a handful of other illicit industries.
It’s a threat of the highest order to so many species and a cause of untold suffering to feeling creatures. But it’s also a threat to economic progress in the world. Many African nations generate billions from wildlife tourism, and that commerce is a bulwark of their economies. The same is true for coastal regions and nations where diving and marine-wildlife-based tourism practices are put at risk by activities that deplete sharks, rays, and other species. In the state of Florida, for example, the dive business generates more than $220 million in economic activity just related to sharks, while the sale of shark fins generates only $1 million or so.
We’ve done ballot initiatives in recent years to ban the trade in wildlife parts in Oregon and Washington, and voters approved the measures in landslide votes. Thanks to the steadfast conservation leadership of the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mo Denis, Nevada has become the seventh state to take a stand against wildlife trafficking crime, joining the Northwest states and also California, Hawaii, New Jersey, and New York. Nevada’s SB 194 focuses on highly-trafficked wildlife products such as elephant ivory, rhino horns, shark fins, and any parts or products of lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, pangolins, sea turtles, rays, narwhals, walruses, mammoths, and hippopotamuses. This bill has some common-sense exemptions for some items, such as antiques and musical instruments, if they meet certain requirements.
A bill in Nebraska to prohibit the sale of elephant ivory and rhino horn is awaiting a hearing on the floor of that state’s unicameral legislature. Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Massachusetts are also considering similar elephant ivory and rhino horn bans. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee passed a bill to ban the trade in shark fins on the national level; a companion House bill awaits action.
We work at the international level to attack these problems, and we are working to combat trade in dozens of nations. It takes our work in all of these public policy theaters to be successful, because wildlife smugglers search for gaps in the law to conduct their destructive and deadly actions. We’ll continue to fight the poachers and traffickers on every front, with resolve and with as many resources as we can muster. It’s not just the lives of innocent creatures that are at risk, but entire species and countless businesses built on our appreciation of the glorious creatures who inhabit our planet and quicken our pulse just with their natural behaviors in their God-given habitats.