Commercial imports of elephant ivory have been banned by federal and international law for decades. But now wildlife activists are pressing West Coast states to pass their own laws to deter the poaching of elephants and rhinos.
Initiative 1401, bankrolled by billionaire Paul Allen, will be considered by Washington state voters next month. A ballot measure in Oregon that would criminalize trafficking in endangered wildlife is also in the works. And a new law in California bans all ivory trade.
The wildlife-rich forests and savannas of Africa may seem a world away, but animal contraband does pass through the Northwest. Last year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service busted an antique dealer who attempted to smuggle rhino horns from the U.S. to suburban Vancouver, Canada, through an address in Point Roberts, Washington. The arrest came as part of a sting dubbed "Operation Crash.”
USFWS supervisory wildlife inspector John Goldman recalled one seizure of ivory jewelry in Portland in the last three years. The Seattle/Tacoma seaport and airport and Washington and Idaho's northern border with Canada combined averaged about three to four interceptions per year of elephant ivory jewelry or carvings or an improperly imported, sport-hunted elephant trophy.
"It's not very often that we're finding it,” Goldman said during an inspection at an air cargo warehouse near SeaTac International Airport earlier this month. He was part of a quartet of special agents and wildlife inspectors who arrived not with guns in hand, but wielding handbooks on African wildlife and power screwdrivers.
The federal inspectors wanted to look inside several wooden crates. The manifests said the crates contained trophies from big game hunts in southern Africa. When the lids came off, they revealed a wide assortment of skulls, taxidermy, antelope horns and mounted heads swaddled in bubble wrap.
Goldman folded back a thick wrapper and pointed out some ivory. But in this case, it was okay because the tusk belonged to the skull of a warthog -- not a protected species.
"This would be difficult to confuse with elephant ivory,” added Special Agent In Charge Erik Marek.
Goldman said there is ample reason to believe there is a legitimate problem.
"We are arguably the fourth largest seaport (in the U.S.), okay. It's a growing airport, a growing region. There's tremendous affluence here,” he said. “All of these things all point to the potential for greater illegal wildlife imports and exports."
‘It's about sending a message’
So, it’s an issue with federal laws to address it, and inspectors who don’t find elephant or rhino products very often. Why then do groups such as the Humane Society of the U.S., Wildlife Conservation Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and others want new state laws against it?
"It's about sending a message not only here in Washington state, but across the country about stopping this illegal wildlife trade, sending a collective message," said Jennifer Hillman, the Humane Society's Director of Outreach & Engagement in Seattle.
“Having that much deeper level of enforcement at the state level is going to help overall with the trafficking that’s happening intrastate,” she added.
That is the direction California is going now that Governor Jerry Brown has signed a new law banning the sale of ivory or rhino horns in his state.
Legal antiques and illegal trade
Oregon and Washington lawmakers considered similar measures that extended into the retail antique sector during their legislative sessions earlier this year, but those did not pass. Opposition in Salem and Olympia came from knife and gun enthusiasts who said a strict ivory ban would be unfair to owners of legally-acquired ivory handled guns and knives.
So now wildlife advocates are going straight to the voters -- this November in Washington and probably next November in Oregon. However, none of the proposed state laws includes additional money for enforcement.
Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trailblazers owner Paul Allen bankrolled the successful initiative petition drive in Washington. Initiative 1401 would criminalize under state law trafficking in 10 species of endangered wildlife. The animals to be protected by I-1401 include elephants, rhinos, lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, pangolins (aka scaly anteaters), and certain marine turtles, sharks and rays.
"The truth is that poaching in Africa cannot be stopped by a Washington state initiative. The controlling laws would be the laws of the countries themselves,” Stuart Halsan countered.
Halsan is an antique collector and lobbyist/lawyer from Centralia, Washington. In a TVW video voter’s guide statement, he looked directly into the camera and declared the state ballot measure would make "innocent people criminals."
"Demonizing people who own legal ivory antiques from before its importation was made illegal is not an effective or even rational strategy to combat poaching in Africa,” Halsan said. “It wouldn't work and it would make legal antiques worthless."
At present, you can legally sell vintage African elephant ivory if you can document that it arrived in this country before 1990.
Can the ivory trade be halted?
Wildlife advocates make no bones about seeking a broad ban on ivory sales, no matter its provenance. They argue the legal ivory trade provides cover for sales of illegal trinkets and carvings.
A 2014 study of the ivory trade in California commissioned by the NRDC characterized federal law enforcement as "minimal." In the Pacific Northwest, the enforcement branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is stretched thin. It stations four field agents and two wildlife inspectors in Oregon. Idaho has three field agents. Washington is home to 11 agents and inspectors, including supervisors.
Recent investigations of elephant and rhino poaching in Africa attribute the upsurge in trafficking to demand from China and neighboring Southeast Asian countries. Opponents of state legislation argued in Olympia earlier this year that sales in the United States do not materially contribute to the illegal ivory trade.
But wildlife advocacy groups assert the U.S. has one of the biggest markets in the world for ivory, legal and illegal, and that ending demand at home is key to stopping the slaughter of elephants abroad.
The subject of wildlife trafficking came up when President Barack Obama met at the White House with Chinese President Xi Jinping in late September. A White House list of the bilateral agreements reached during that summit included a promise of action from China to match a previously announced U.S. crackdown on the ivory trade:
"The United States and China commit to enact nearly complete bans on ivory import and export... and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory,” one agreement read.
Wildlife agencies and non-governmental organizations paint a dire picture of the future of elephants and rhinos in the wild if the current pace of poaching continues. Hillman noted that they “could disappear in our lifetime.”
As of Tuesday, billionaire Paul Allen had personally given $1.51 million out of the total $2.4 million in cash raised by the pro-1401 committee, which calls itself Save Animals Facing Extinction. Most of Allen's donations appear to have been paid out to a petition signature gathering firm. Allen also reported $150,000 in in-kind contributions, mostly staff time and office expenses at his development company Vulcan, Inc.
The opposition, which calls itself the Legal Ivory Rights Coalition, reports negligible fundraising or expenditures.