By Jim Brunner
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is backing a state initiative that would criminalize trafficking in 10 endangered species, from the elephant to the little-known pangolin.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is bankrolling an initiative for the fall ballot that would make it a crime in Washington to sell or trade elephant ivory, shark fins and other animal parts derived from certain exotic, endangered creatures.
Initiative 1401 would cover 10 species threatened with extinction in part due to the market for their body parts. The list includes the elephant, rhinoceros, tiger, lion, leopard, cheetah, marine turtle, shark, ray and pangolin — an obscure but frequently poached mammal also known as the scaly anteater.
Violations would carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and $10,000 fine. The measure would exempt museums as well as certain antiques and musical instruments, and sales from estates.
With the backing of Allen, one of the world’s wealthiest men, the I-1401 campaign plans to use paid gatherers to muster the 246,372 signatures it needs to submit by July 2 to qualify for the November ballot.
In addition to his software fortune, Allen is best known locally for his real-estate company, Vulcan, and ownership of the Seattle Seahawks. But in recent years the billionaire has expanded his traditional philanthropic support of arts groups and brain research — donating millions of dollars to conservation projects in Africa.
Allen has grown enthralled with the plight of endangered animals during safaris to Africa. He owns tourist lodges in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. He’s also an avid scuba diver.
“Through those experiences, he has created a very personal connection to the animals in those areas,” said Dune Ives, senior director for philanthropy for Vulcan and co-manager of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. She said Allen has been up close to elephants, leopards, sea turtles and other animals that would be protected by I-1401.
“He has been really driven by a question of ‘What can I do to help?’ ” Ives said.
Initiative supporters say that while federal law bans smuggling of many endangered species’ parts, without local penalties the trade continues to run amok.
Ives said the 10 animals that would be protected were chosen because they’re among the most frequent targets for international smuggling. The little-known pangolin, for example, is a rare, scale-covered mammal about the size of a cat that has become heavily poached because its fetuses are believed by some to be an aphrodisiac.
The initiative has been backed by the Woodland Park Zoo, the Seattle Aquarium and the Humane Society of the United States.
Clouding Allen’s conservation-philanthropy image, his name was dragged in recent years into lawsuits that included allegations that his sister, Vulcan co-founder and CEO Jody Allen, directed employees to help her smuggle giraffe bones and ivory out of Africa.
The allegations brought by former security guards, reported extensively in 2013 by Seattlepi.com, were denied by the Allens. The lawsuits were settled for undisclosed terms. Jody Allen left Vulcan late last year, taking what was described as a sabbatical with no specified return date.
Vulcan executives said there was no connection between that and the initiative campaign, saying Allen’s record on protecting endangered species speaks for itself.
Vulcan joined conservation groups to back a bill in the Legislature this year that would have gone after ivory and rhino-horn trafficking in the state. But the proposal died after objections from the National Rifle Association as well as from knife dealers, antique collectors and even the Seattle Symphony, who argued it was written too broadly.
I-1401 backers said they’ve modified some parts of the initiative to address such concerns. The NRA’s Washington state lobbyist, Brian Judy, did not respond to an email and phone call Friday about the new initiative.
Exactly how much of the illegal trade occurs in Washington is unknown, but I-1401 backers pointed to data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, showing dozens of instances of illegal trade in ivory, sharks, alligators and other protected species.
Sam Wasser, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, said organized-crime-backed trade in threatened animals is hurtling them toward extinction.
Africa has an estimated 450,000 elephants, he said, and as many as 50,000 a year have been killed in recent years by poachers.
“For much of this trade, we’re not talking about the little guy buying a piece of ivory here or there. We’re talking about major trafficking,” Wasser added.
As of Friday, the I-1401 campaign had reported no donations.
Sandeep Kaushik, a political consultant for the effort, said signature gathering was beginning and that Allen planned “a very significant financial commitment … we expect this to be a multimillion-dollar campaign.”