By Wayne Pacelle
Poachers recently killed Satao, one of Kenya's best known elephants, whose tusks weighed more than 100 pounds each and reached all the way to the ground. A poison arrow felled Satao in Tsavo National Park, and his death was announced last Friday by the Tsavo Trust and the Kenya Wildlife Service, who monitored his movements and tried to protect him.
The fight to protect Satao's relatives and others of his kind must happen on the ground in the range nations. But it also must happen, in a different way, in the wealthy consumer nations where elephant ivory is carved and turned into high-value products.
This week, lawmakers in New Jersey -- a main point of entry into the United States for smuggled wildlife products -- passed a bill, making this the first state legislature to ban all import and sales of elephant ivory and rhino horn. And this week, the New York legislature is expected to vote to implement a similar ban in that state. As the bills move to their final stage of approval with Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey and New York are neck and neck in the race to be the first U.S. states to ban ivory.
It might surprise some of you to know that there are major loopholes in U.S. laws restricting the elephant ivory trade. Those loopholes, combined with greed, have made the United States the second largest ivory marketplace in the world, after China. Enforcement and wildlife agencies remark that our current market for ivory provides cover for illegal ivory because of lack of adequate enforcement controls and the difficulty in distinguishing legally acquired ivory from the ivory of newly poached elephants. New York City is the nation's largest market for elephant ivory, which makes the prospective ban in New York and neighboring New Jersey even more significant and potentially valuable in helping elephants in Kenya and the rest of Africa.
Last year, a criminal investigation by New Jersey state agencies and the federal government led to the prosecution of an international network of wildlife traffickers in rhino horns and elephant ivory worth several million dollars. The network's ringleader, Zhifei Li, was sentenced to 70 months in prison last month in a U.S. district court in New Jersey.
Since the president's executive order against poaching issued last summer, federal agencies have taken steps to implement meaningful change to address the wildlife trafficking crisis. The Executive Order created a Presidential Task Force and called for the development of a National Strategy for Combatting Wildlife Trafficking. The National Strategy was released this February and lays out how the administration can and should implement efforts to address this critical issue, including a federal rule to prohibit the importation and sale of elephant ivory across state lines.
Also, in April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service temporarily stopped imports of sport-hunted trophies of African elephants from Tanzania and Zimbabwe in a much-needed reprieve for these animals.
Actress Meryl Streep, an American icon and a native of New Jersey, wrote to Gov. Chris Christie in a statement released today on behalf of The HSUS. Ivory is a "product of horrific cruelty to elephants, who could very well become extinct within decades if we don't act now."
About 35,000 African elephants were poached in 2012 for their ivory tusks. In Central Africa, populations of forest elephants have declined by 65 percent during the last decade. Asian elephants are endangered with fewer than 50,000 left in the wild. Just last year, of about 28,000 rhinos of five different species that remain in the wild, more than 1,000 were poached for their horns.
We know now that terrorist networks and other criminal syndicates are driving much of the poaching, as a way to generate cash for their violent, destabilizing efforts in Kenya and other countries in Africa.
Fighting these terrorist groups requires the efforts of the world's most powerful nations to turn around the problem.The HSUS and Humane Society International can help in providing political support for closing loopholes and killing off the profits of the poachers. That's why we applaud New Jersey lawmakers, led by bill author state Senator Raymond Lesniak, for firing this salvo against poachers.We hope that Gov. Christie signs the bill in short order, that New York lawmakers follow suit, and that the Obama administration makes final its national rule with all due haste.