By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
14 November 2013
U.S. officials will consider whether the current legal U.S. trade in ivory should be outlawed as a way to curtail illegal trafficking in wildlife products. The officials are considering that possibility just as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service destroys a 6-ton cache of illegal elephant ivory, confiscated by U.S. law enforcement agencies in different operations over several years.President Obama impaneled the Task Force on Combating Wildlife Trafficking in mid-2013, directing officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the departments of Justice and State to co-chair the panel. Officials outlined their efforts to fulfill the presidential assignment in a press briefing November 5.
Criminal wildlife traffickers use the United States as a transit point and a market for illegal ivory. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said the U.S. trade in legally harvested ivory may serve as a “smoke screen,” providing a mask of quasi-legitimacy for illegal ivory taken from elephants senselessly slaughtered in game reserves.
“As part of the task force, we need to have and we will have discussion about the U.S. trade in ivory,” Ashe said. A 1990 treaty bans international trade in ivory, with some exceptions for registered stores of material. The United States allows narrow exceptions for the sale of ivory harvested in subsistence hunting by native peoples.
Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Kerri-Ann Jones said the illegal hunting and destruction of elephants and rhinos has increased greatly in recent years. The danger to conservation efforts and preservation of these species are two consequences, but Jones said illegal wildlife trafficking is also “a security problem, it’s a health problem and it’s an economic problem, especially for the areas where the wildlife is being taken.”
Illegal takings of valued species are increasing because trade in these goods is now recognized as “highly lucrative,” said Robert Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for environment at the Department of Justice. Trade in wildlife products is estimated at between $7 billion and $10 billion annually, he said.
“This is trafficking that seems to be very sophisticated, highly organized, syndicated trafficking,” Dreher said, associated with crime networks and international terrorist groups.
Representatives from 14 government agencies are part of the presidential task force, which is developing a new national strategy to combat trafficking. That will be completed soon for presidential review, Dreher said, and probably released next year.
On the international front, Jones said, the strategy includes U.S. assistance programs to support governments in strengthening their conservation and protection measures. U.S. aid campaigns also focus on building greater economic opportunities so poor people don’t resort to wildlife poaching as a means of subsistence.
A handful of crushed ivory is displayed as a message to criminal traffickers that the commodity has no monetary value in the U.S.
Helping source countries create stronger law enforcement and judicial systems to limit the corruption that enables this trade is another component of U.S. international assistance.“There’s an awful lot of people [in source countries] who are really trying to make a difference who are outgunned, and they don’t have the training that they need, and they don’t have the support that they need,” Jones said.
The United States is building partnerships with other governments to overcome these obstacles, she said. U.S.-backed law enforcement training sites have been established in other nations as a result of these partnerships.
While the United States is engaged with African and Asian nations on this issue, officials say they fully recognize that much of the world traffic in wildlife products is bound for or goes through the United States.
“We have to deal with our own issues,” Jones said. “We have very good laws, but we still are a market.”
The destruction of 6 tons of illegal ivory seized by law enforcement sends a message about U.S. commitment to stopping trafficking.
“We send a very clear signal,” Dreher said, “that these illegally traded products should not be perceived as items of value.”
Ashe said the massive ivory crushing demonstration November 14 should also send a message to other nations that they should take action to deal with stockpiles of these contraband materials. The Fish and Wildlife Service director said his agency is working with cultural institutions to develop a plan for use of the crushed material in monuments of some kind.
These memorials to the slaughtered animals “will then move to zoos and cities around the country and be used to help educate and build awareness about the plight that these animals are facing,” Ashe said.