By Ben Criswell
Yesterday the Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs held a hearing to discuss and critique the Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) new rule issuing an almost complete ban on the commercial trade of goods containing ivory without proper documentation proving the good’s antiquity, and limiting trophy hunting of African elephants to 2 tags per person annually. The rule came out in response to President Obama’s announcement of the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. The hope of this rule is to socially stigmatize ivory trade, and devalue it so as to take away the incentive for poachers to go to great lengths to kill African elephants for their tusks (currently valued at $1,500 per pound). The illegal killing of African elephants is proceeding at an alarming rate; there have been 35,000 animals killed since February of 2013, with an average of 4 elephants being killed per hour. The problem was referred to as an “international poaching epidemic” and panelist Robert Dreher of the FWS said he “[could not\ overstate the urgency of this crisis.” Panelist and actor Ian Somerhalder cited that at the current rate of killing the beloved African elephant will be extinct in 10 years.
The poaching epidemic is also “an international security risk” according to Congressman Peter DeFazio. Terrorist organizations such as Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and the al-Queda affiliate group al-Shabaab receive up to 40% of their annual revenue from the illegal killing of wildlife. Just one elephant can finance a significant amount of weaponry for terrorist organizations.
The U.S. is the second largest market for ivory behind China, and similar to how bird feathers in hats went out of style with the Migratory Birds Treaty Act of 1918, the FWS hopes that more stringent protection of elephants will lead ivory to similarly go out of style. There are significant problems with the FWS approach, however, as exposed in the hearing.
Antiques dealers, museum curators, and musicians oppose this regulation fearing devaluing of property and harassment by officials shifting the burden of legal proof onto them. Chairman John Fleming called the proposed rule “unconstitutional” due to this guilty until proven innocent approach. Such outrage was echoed by other members of the Committee. Congressman Don Young was particularly adamant, calling the proposed action a “hair-brained FWS idea” and ending his questioning with “shame on you [Mr. Dreher\.” In defense of the argument for documentation, it is called for because of the extreme difficulty in discerning an antique ivory artifact from a new one. In fact, much of the illegal ivory entering the United States is disguised as antique ivory. It is nearly impossible to tell the age of ivory by sight, and requires an intrusive and expensive ($1,000) test to prove its age.
Mr. Itai Tendaupenyu, the Principal Ecologist of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, gave his testimony alongside Mr. Dreher and brought the perspective from one of the countries actually hosting the elephants. He stated that he was disappointed with the FWS’s proposed action made without consulting the Zimbabwe government, cited the stably increasing elephant population in Zimbabwe (albeit a unique case), and confirmed his opinion that the FWS proposal would be detrimental to the wellbeing of African elephants in his country. Mr. Tendaupenyu said that without trophy hunting the local communities would have no economic incentive to protect elephant populations from poachers. Land used for hunting can profit $7-8/hectare per day as opposed to ranching on that land and profiting $1/hectare per day according to former congressman Jack Fields. Mr. Tendaupenyu argued the FWS rules would result in underfunded and therefore underproductive parks service protection, cutting of environmental education and conservation programs, and overall economic hardship for communities dependent on the legal harvesting of elephants. Boiled down, the proposed regulation would result in the killing of more elephants rather than saving them. However, other African countries hosting elephants do not have increasing elephant populations or any sort of respectable parks service protecting them.
It was clear that everyone in the room wanted the same thing—the wellbeing of the African Elephant. But the FWS proposal in its current form drew significant legitimate opposition. Mr. Fields tasked the Subcommittee to “follow the money” and address the problem of poaching at its source rather than obstruct legal domestic ivory trade in the United States. Clearly there is an urgent issue and it would be much more encouraging to see a productive dialogue rather than partisan rants. EDN hopes to see meaningful change in policy protecting the world’s largest land mammal, whether that be a revised FWS approach or striking of the exception of elephants from the Endangered Species Act.