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World Wildlife Day: The U.S. Moves to Crack Down On Wildlife Crime

World Wildlife Day is a chance to appreciate the breathtaking variety of life on our planet; however, the headlines are often necessarily consumed by the global fight to save some of the most magnificent species from extinction. The illegal wildlife trade is a lucrative business, bringing in an estimated $8 to $10 billion annually for international criminal networks and terrorist organizations, and the historically light sentences faced by poachers make wildlife trafficking a low risk-high reward crime for the perpetrators. This booming trade is devastating some of the world’s most beloved and iconic species; in 2014 alone for example, 1,215 rhinos in South Africa and as many as 50,000 elephants were poached.

This year, the theme of World Wildlife Day is “Serious About Wildlife Crime,” and fortunately, the United States is taking that message to heart. On February 11, 2015, the White House unveiled its Implementation Plan for the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, which outlines the comprehensive approach that the United States aims to roll back wildlife crime at home and abroad. Here we highlight some important parts of the plan in our view:

Close the American Ivory Trade. While it is easy to feel detached from international poaching, wildlife trafficking is also a major problem within the United States. In 2011, federal agents seized more than a ton of poached ivory from a Philadelphia antiques store, the owner of which had been exploiting loopholes in the U.S. system to pass off new ivory as antique for almost a decade. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is in the process of implementing a near-total ban on elephant ivory and rhino horn trade to address loopholes that help smugglers move blood ivory into the United States. Unfortunately, special interest groups like the National Rifle Association are attempting to undermine this progress by supporting a bill introduced by Congressman Don Young (R-AK), which would prevent any changes from being made to how the United States treats its ivory market, thus allowing loopholes to remain. EIA is working to ensure the strongest regulatory ban on the ivory trade is implemented and believes strong U.S. leadership is needed to focus the international dialogue on closing down all domestic ivory markets, both illegal and legal. We now face a reality where we can have elephants or have ivory trade, but not both.

Strengthen Law Enforcement and Penalties for Traffickers. The United States aims to deter traffickers in part by increasing the legal penalties for major offenders. Many traffickers use the United States as a supply point, like Chinese smuggler Zhifei Li, who was arrested in 2013 as part of Operation Crash, an ongoing multi-agency investigation, for trading more than $4.5 million worth of rhino horn and elephant ivory products. Accompanying this stronger enforcement push Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have introduced the bipartisan Wildlife Trafficking Enforcement Act, which would make major smuggling of some species punishable by up to 20 years in prison. While the proposed law could go farther to protect more species, EIA supports the bill as a major step in the right direction towards treating trade in wildlife as a serious offense.

Hold Nations Accountable for Their Role in Wildlife Crimes. Corruption and a lack of national action play a major role in allowing poaching, trafficking, and demand for wildlife products to flourish, and the United States is looking into using every tool in its diplomatic arsenal to prompt key countries to act. One of these is the Pelly Amendment, which can be used to sanction nations that are undermining the effectiveness of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) or other international environmental agreements of which the United States is Party to. EIA has submitted petitions under the Pelly Amendment on Mozambique for its trade in poached ivory and rhino horn and Vietnam for its major trade in poached rhino horn trafficking. The Pelly Amendment effectively triggered a worldwide crackdown on trade in poached rhino horn trade in the 1990s when EIA exposed a Taiwanese criminal syndicate of smuggling tons of rhino horn to mainland China to sell to the state pharmaceutical industry. President Bill Clinton enacted trade sanctions on Taiwan and both Taiwan and China banned domestic trade in rhino horn causing a worldwide decline in rhino poaching.

Engaging Industries. As with everything else in the 21st Century, wildlife trafficking has increasingly gone online. Retail websites like Rakuten in Japan openly maintain listings for tens of thousands of ivory products, while other sites like Ebay have banned ivory sales, though smugglers continue to try and peddle their wares. The Obama Administration’s Implementation Plan calls for working with business leaders to foster “industry-specific approaches” to issues around wildlife trafficking. EIA believes there is no way to effectively regulate the online trade of wildlife products, and will work to ensure the industry takes a strong stance against trade in ivory, rhino, tiger, bear parts and any other threatened species or species that suffer significant mortality from live trade.

Slowly but surely, nations are starting to treat wildlife crime with the seriousness it deserves; EIA applauds the United States’ leadership and its Implementation Plan and hopes it will deter organized criminals who are profiting from the decimation of wildlife and reduce the poaching threat to species around the world.

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