By Elly Pepper
Did you know that current New York law fails to differentiate between penalties for those who sell illegal wildlife worth $1,500 and those who sell illegal wildlife worth $2 million? In other words, the penalty is the same whether you sell, say, two boxes of carved ivory representing two poached elephants or over 70 boxes of ivory representing 100 poached elephants! Especially given the fact that wildlife traffickers reap huge sums from their sales -- for example elephant ivory sells for about $1,500 per pound -- this penalty scheme doesn’t do anything to deter wildlife traffickers. With penalties like these it’s no wonder New York is the biggest ivory market in the U.S.
New York County’s District Attorney Cyrus Vance said exactly this in two letters he wrote to Assembly Member Sweeney – the sponsor of the Assembly ivory bill A8824. And, as the individual overseeing prosecution of wildlife traffickers in New York, he should know!
In his letter, District Attorney Vance offers an example of why New York needs increased penalties for wildlife traffickers: In 2012, his office uncovered 72 boxes of carved ivory pieces – representing the tusks of 100 slaughtered elephants – in Manhattan’s diamond district. Despite the fact that the retail value of the ivory was more than $2 million dollars, the two wildlife traffickers involved were subject to the lowest-level felony on the books—a Class E felony.
As District Attorney Vance wrote, New York needs to create gradated penalties so that wildlife traffickers will receive punishments that fit their crimes. Appropriate penalties are also an important deterrence mechanism: the costs of selling illegal wildlife have to outweigh the benefits if we want to persuade people to stop doing it.
Both ivory bills currently pending in the New York legislature – AB 8824 (Sweeney) and SB 7194 (Lanza) – would do exactly what District Attorney Vance suggests by establishing an increasing scale of punishments to match increasingly large sales of illegal wildlife. Specifically, the bills provides increased penalties for salesof wildlife worth more than $250,000, establishes, higher civil fines for repeat offenders, and gives more authority to District Attorney Vance and others with similar positions to give jail time to wildlife traffickers.
The simple fact is that the New York Department of Environmental Conservation doesn’t have the resources to address all the wildlife trafficking that’s occurring in New York. They need help and increased penalties like the ones these bills and District Attorney Vance promote can go a long way towards providing that assistance.
Let’s make it more risky than profitable for wildlife traffickers to engage in crimes that are destroying our globe’s species. Let’s pass AB 8824 and SB 7194!