As the Director of the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology, my career has been devoted to developing cutting-edge scientific techniques to help us better protect animal species threatened with extinction. My work on analyzing DNA samples taken from confiscated shipments of illegal African elephant ivory has helped us pinpoint where the bulk of elephant poaching is taking place.
My work has provided a clear understanding of how serious is the elephant poaching problem. With 50,000 elephants poached annually out of a remaining population of 470,000 individuals, the scale of the slaughter is immense. Many other species are suffering a similar fate. Time is running out. The United Nations set the ambitious Sustainable Development Goal to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss?” What can we do here at home — in Washington State and across the country — to facilitate that goal? In Washington State, we have the opportunity to make a big difference this November by supporting Initiative 1401, a statewide ballot measure before voters this fall.
Initiative 1401 is carefully designed to help save endangered animals. The measure would prohibit the purchase, sale and distribution of products made from a list of 10 endangered species being exploited or poached to the point of potential extinction. The measure will be enforced by strong penalties, including up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for the worst offenses. Up to $4,000 in fines for each offense will go into a fund to pay for enforcement efforts. The animals protected by I-1401 include: elephants, rhinos, lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, marine turtles, pangolins, sharks and rays.
While the poaching and the cruel slaughter of these iconic animals primarily occurs in Africa and Asia, this is our problem as well. The illegal wildlife trade has become the world’s top five transnational organized crimes. It’s valued at $20 billion annually, if you include fish and timber — the illegal ivory trade alone is worth $3 billion dollars annually — and a portion of that money is used to fuel violence around the globe. Many of those poached products are being bought and sold right here in the United States. In fact, after China, the U.S. is considered the one of the largest markets for wildlife products.
Washington State has a particularly important role to play in containing this illegal wildlife trade. Ship containers are among the most major vehicles used by organized crime syndicates to transport illegal contraband. Taken together, our ports in Seattle and Tacoma represent the third most heavily trafficked container ports in the U.S., just under New York/New Jersey and Los Angeles/Long Beach in California, with a disproportionately large amount of our shipments arriving from Asia.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has seized more than 50 shipments of elephant products in Washington State since 2010. Products made from other endangered animals have been seized here as well. Passing I-1401 will make a real difference right here in our own state. Enforcement of our current laws has been limited, partly because existing penalties are so weak. If we strengthen our laws and increase enforcement efforts, we can close our borders to this illegal and inhumane trade.
But I-1401 is not just about stopping the illegal wildlife trade in Washington. It is about sending a strong message to the rest of the country, and for that matter the world, that trafficking in these products is a serious crime, causing irreversible damage to our environment, and our citizens want no part in that.
California and New York are already working towards ending illegal wildlife trade in their states. If we do the same, the three largest ports in the U.S. will be sending a collective message that environmental security and economic security must go hand in hand for us to live in a sustainable world.
I-1401 is supported not only by conservation scientists like me, but also by a growing list of respected animal protection and conservation organizations. The Humane Society of the United States generously contributed $125,000 to this effort. Other groups, like National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), WildAid, the Sierra Club, Conservation Northwest, BornFree, and the International Fund for African Wildlife (IFAW), and many others have joined the I-1401 coalition. Please join us in supporting this important initiative on the November ballot.
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