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Monday, March 24, 2008

Poaching Under the Gun

Last week, the Associated Press and other news outlets reported that a park ranger was arrested for masterminding the illegal massacre of endangered mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park in eastern Congo.  Only about 700 mountain gorillas remain in the wild, and most of them are in the conflict-ridden Virunga range which straddles Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. The ranger apparently orchestrated the slayings to deter and demoralize environmentalists who are working to preserve the gorilla’s rainforest habitat.

Ap_gorillas_080319_ms The political motivation for assassinating these rare creatures was nefarious in the extreme, but the photo accompanying the news story—showing four dead mountain gorillas tied to makeshift stretchers—was even more haunting. It’s a stark reminder of the many perils that wild animals face, whether here or abroad, and whether their species are imperiled or abundant.

Globally, the illegal killing and smuggling of wildlife is taking an astonishing toll. A few years ago, 25 tons of live turtles were exported from Sumatra to China every week.  That’s just one species from one country to another, and it gives you some idea of what is happening worldwide. From the killing of sharks for their fins, to the killing of elephants for their ivory tusks, to the killing of bears for their gall bladders, the cruelty for profit knows no boundaries.

Here in the U.S., some estimates indicate that for every wild animal legally killed by a sport hunter—tens of millions each year—another animal is illegally killed by a poacher. With strained budgets for law enforcement and countless acres of open land difficult to monitor, many poachers get away with their crimes and only a handful are brought to justice. The Humane Society of the United States and its Wildlife Land Trust are working with hunting groups and state wildlife agencies to take a bite out of poaching, offering rewards for tips on illegal activity and publicizing hotlines and websites for reporting poachers.

The Humane Society Legislative Fund is urging Congress to take action on an important anti-poaching bill, too. Last week, the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Oceans held a hearing on H.R. 5534, the Bear Protection Act, introduced by Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and John Campbell (R-Calif.). The bill would bar the interstate and foreign commerce in the internal organs of bears, and would deter poachers from killing these creatures for the lucrative black market in bear bile, gall bladders, and other viscera.

Bear_1_2One principle of modern wildlife management is that wild animals are a public resource, and should not be killed for private commercial gain. That’s why market hunting ended in the early twentieth century, and why state wildlife agencies established hunting seasons, bag limits, and other checks on excessive practices. A bear’s gall bladder is not sought after for sport or trophy, but only to make a buck by selling it for Asian apothecaries and aphrodisiacs. And the gall bladder of a black bear looks identical to that of a more vulnerable polar bear or Asiatic bear, so there’s no telling what species the organs came from.

Many hunters rightly support strict policies to curtail poaching and conserve wildlife resources from illegal trade. Ray Schoenke, president of the American Hunters and Shooters Association, was among the supporters testifying in favor of the Bear Protection Act, and he wrote a blog on Daily Kos about the subcommittee hearing. Schoenke—a lifelong hunter and former Washington Redskins player—was attacked by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) for supposedly not being enough of a hunter. It’s ironic that Young would take such a position and squabble over an anti-poaching bill, since Alaska is one of the 34 states that already ban the commercial sale of bear parts.

The Bear Protection Act has passed the U.S. Senate unanimously in previous Congresses, but has always been blocked in the House by the likes of Don Young and former Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.). With new leadership of the House Natural Resources Committee, it’s time to pass this anti-poaching policy and protect bears from illegal killing—a goal shared by animal advocates and hunters alike.

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