By James Podgers
Efforts by the Obama administration in recent months to focus on illegal trafficking of wildlife and related activities undermining wildlife conservation have not received widespread attention. But that could change in the near future.
The under-the-radar nature of the issue may help explain why only a dozen people attended a program Thursday titled "International Trade in Animals and Animal Products: Forging Agreements and Litigating Disputes." The program was sponsored by the Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section. Thursday is the first full day of programming and other events at the 2014 ABA Annual Meeting in Boston.
But that audience heard a thorough status report on an issue that is likely to affect global economic policies.
“This is a growing concern worldwide, and a recognition that levels of animal trafficking have really spiked,” especially in Asia, said David W. Oliver, the deputy assistant U.S. trade representative for environment and natural resources. The office of the U.S. trade representative is in the executive office of the president. Moreover, Oliver said, there is growing involvement in the lucrative wildlife trafficking market by international criminal enterprises and terrorist groups. “This is a significant problem with multiple dimensions,” he said.
Illegal trafficking is affecting a veritable menagerie of animals, said Oliver, including elephants, rhinos, tigers, apes, sharks, tuna, sea turtles and exotic birds. He said, for instance, that some 20 percent of the world’s wildlife fishing catch each year is illegal, which deprives legitimate fishing enterprises of some $23 billion annually in revenue. And in 2013, between 20,000 and 25,000 elephants were killed by poachers out of a worldwide elephant population of about 600,000.
This kind of activity “fuels corruption and undermines the rule of law,” Oliver said.
In July 2013, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to enhance U.S. government efforts to combat animal trafficking. The president appointed a task force to develop and implement a more comprehensive national strategy for dealing with the issue. Earlier this summer, Obama issued a presidential memorandum to create a comprehensive framework for combating illegal practices in the fishing and seafood industries. The administration also has begun negotiating at transpacific partnership with 11 other countries as well as a transatlantic trade and investment partnership primarily with the European Union to deal with illegal practices in the trade of animals and animal products.
Nevertheless, the issue is not a new one. The interest of the U.S. government in dealing with illegal fishing practices, for instance, goes back to at least the early 1960s, when it began introducing policies to protect dolphins from being caught in nets collecting tuna. Those actions triggered a dispute with Mexico that is ongoing under the dispute resolution process established by the World Trade Organization. An action by the European Union to ban the sale of seal products on moral grounds also triggered a challenge before the WTO. A dispute resolution panel of the WTO recently affirmed that the moral basis for the EU’s policy was proper, but also indicated that the policy still may be inconsistent with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
A ruling against a nation introducing a limitation on commercial activities is not unusual, indicated Peter L. Fitzgerald, a professor at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Florida. Through June 2014, he said, there have been more than 260 decisions by WTO dispute resolution panels or appellate panels relating to wildlife policies affecting trade. So far, he noted, only two cases have upheld trade restrictions introduced by defendant countries.