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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tackling the Tusk Trade

In a welcome break from partisan gridlock, Republicans and Democrats are joining together to protect elephants and rhinos from illegal poaching. This month, New Jersey and New York became the first two states to ban the trade in elephant ivory and rhino horns, with bills signed by Governors Chris Christie, R-N.J., and Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y.  The new policies will help to crack down on international wildlife traffickers and dry up the demand for illegal wildlife products in the northeast, which is the largest U.S. market for ivory and a main entry point for smuggled wildlife products.

Elephants and rhinos are threatened by a global poaching crisis. Only 28,000 rhinos of five different species remain in the wild, with more than 1,000 of them poached last year for their horns. In 2012, about 35,000 African elephants were killed for their tusks, and if the current poaching rate continues, African elephants could be extinct in a few decades. In Central Africa, populations of forest elephants have declined by 65 percent during the last decade. Asian elephants are critically endangered with fewer than 50,000 left in the wild.

Seized Ivory Crush
Seized U.S. ivory stockpile bound for crushing. Credit: The HSUS/Iris Ho

Much of the killing is associated with criminal networks and Africa-based terrorist groups like al-Shabaab, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and others, which use the proceeds from ivory sales to fund their nefarious activities. As House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., noted, “While this growing problem is a grave threat to wildlife, with some animals facing extinction, it is also a threat to U.S. national security interests. As long as illegal wildlife trafficking continues, terrorists and rebel groups will have yet another way to fund their deadly objectives.”

Policymakers need to do more to address this problem. Fortunately, President Obama has announced a national strategy to crack down on elephant poaching and the ivory trade, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to issue new regulations that would prohibit the commercial import all African elephant ivory, including antiques, with a few exemptions for non-commercial purposes. This near-total ban on U.S. commerce in African elephant ivory, with the exception of a narrow class of antiques and certain ivory items that are exempt from regulation under the Endangered Species Act, will build on the efforts of the states to stem the tide of the poaching epidemic.

Shockingly, some members of Congress are trying to retain the status quo on the illegal slaughter of elephants, and at the request of the trophy hunting and gun lobbies and the music and antique industries, are fighting the Administration’s proposal. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.—whom Chattanoogan columnist Roy Exum said is “morphing into America’s newest champion of animal abuse”—and Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., have introduced the so-called “Lawful Ivory Protection Act,” which would handcuff the Fish and Wildlife Service and prevent the administration from taking any new action to protect elephants from the ivory trade.

These short-sighted politicians are lamenting the ability of someone to resell a gun or a guitar with a little bit of ivory on it, without regard for the fate of the largest land mammal in the world or our national security. Congress should follow the lead of New Jersey and New York, and support the global effort to stop the slaughter of elephants and rhinos—not provide aid and comfort to the organized criminal network of poachers and traffickers.

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