Don't create safe haven for wildlife trafficking — reject SAVES Act

Don't create safe haven for wildlife trafficking — reject SAVES Act
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This week marks the one-year anniversary of the signing into law of the END Wildlife Trafficking Act. The legislation, which promotes international cooperation to curb poaching and wildlife trafficking, and increases federal penalties for wildlife crimes, enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support. 

Leaders on both sides of the aisle understand that the illegal wildlife trade threatens our planet’s remaining populations of rhinos, tigers, elephants and other endangered wildlife, while funneling billions of dollars every year to transnational criminal organizations — including groups with terrorist affiliations.

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Unfortunately, a bill now making its way through the House of Representatives could give relief to wildlife traffickers just when we have them on the ropes, while also damaging America’s credibility on the world stage.

 

The deceptively named “SAVES” Act, or H.R. 2603, would strip existing Endangered Species Act protections from species “not native to the United States.” The bill, introduced by Rep. Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertTempers flare at tense Judiciary hearing on impeachment Judiciary hearing gets heated as Democratic counsel interrogates GOP staffer Live coverage: Democrats, Republicans seek to win PR battle in final House impeachment hearing MORE (R-Texas) and being voted on this week by the House Natural Resources Committee, would leave many of the most trafficked species on the planet more vulnerable, including elephants, rhinos, tigers, and hundreds of other species of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish. 

These animals or their parts may be sold for tens of thousands of dollars as ivory trinkets, rhino horn powder, tiger bone wine, culinary delicacies or exotic pets. And even when these species are killed or captured and sold overseas, many of them are destined for black markets in our own backyard. 

The results of Operation Crash, a nationwide investigation into rhino horn smuggling, offers a glimpse into this far-reaching criminal enterprise. To date, the undercover work of some 150 U.S. law enforcement officers has yielded over 40 arrests, over 30 convictions, the seizure of elephant tusks and rhino horns worth over $75 million, and combined prison sentences of over 34 years — all within U.S. borders. 

Without the Endangered Species Act’s protections for non-native species, Operation Crash likely never would have happened, and many of the perpetrators might still be selling their bloody wares in American markets and helping to drive rhinos to extinction.

Proponents of the “SAVES” Act argue it’s not necessary to protect non-native species under the Endangered Species Act, because they are already protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). But CITES is an international agreement — it has no authority over trafficking within our own borders. That’s what domestic law is for, and the law that implements CITES within the U.S. is — you guessed it — the Endangered Species Act.

Simply put, if the “SAVES” Act becomes law, many U.S. wildlife crime cases would go unprosecuted. Prohibitions on the interstate and international sale of many endangered wildlife species would effectively be lifted, including prohibitions on increasingly popular online transactions.

To fully appreciate the implications of such a drastic step, consider the experience of Thailand, which until recently had the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest unregulated ivory market.  

The reason is simple: Until just the last few years, Thailand’s laws only provided protections for domestic species, which meant that Asian elephants were protected, but African elephants were not. The result? Once illegal African elephant ivory made it past the border, Thai authorities were powerless to do anything about it, causing ivory markets to flourish. Likewise, the “SAVES” Act could undermine years of America’s bipartisan efforts to eradicate wildlife trafficking and the criminal networks that drive it.

The “SAVES” Act would also hurt America’s efforts to combat wildlife trafficking overseas. U.S. agencies are currently preparing to submit to Congress a list of countries where they will focus efforts with partner governments to reduce poaching, trafficking and demand within and across their borders. What message would we send to those nations if we simultaneously advance legislation that cripples enforcement here at home?

It is impossible to overstate the importance of U.S. credibility on this issue. Our willingness to tighten domestic ivory regulations under the Endangered Species Act in 2016 was crucial to securing China’s commitment to shutter its own vast ivory market, the driving force behind the elephant poaching crisis.

U.S. law enforcement already struggles to cope with the sheer volume of wildlife crimes. By gutting protections for non-native species under the Endangered Species Act, H.R. 2603 would effectively declare to wildlife criminals that America is “open for business.”  That would be a colossal mistake — for the preservation of U.S. leadership around the world, and for the endangered wildlife that calls this planet home.

Ginette Hemley is senior vice president for Wildlife Conservation at World Wildlife Fund (WWF). For more than 30 years she has served on the front lines of conservation, with expertise in field ecology, strengthening wildlife conservation policies, and addressing wildlife trafficking issues.