Congress Moves to Treat Poachers Like Drug Traffickers
At least Congress can agree on one thing—poachers need more punishment.
Monday night the House of Representatives passed the Global Anti-Poaching Act (H.R. 2494)—a bill that increases the penalties for wildlife trafficking, putting the crime on par with weapons and drug smuggling.
The bill was introduced on May 21 by Reps. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and gained bipartisan support in July following the death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe at the hands of Minnesota big game hunter Walter Palmer. While Zimbabwean authorities declined to charge Palmer, Cecil’s death triggered global outrage over illegal poaching and wildlife trafficking and spurred the legislation.
“Wildlife crime has traditionally been extremely high profit and very low risk,” Ginette Hemley, World Wildlife Fund’s senior vice president of wildlife conservation, said in a statement. “By officially designating wildlife trafficking as a serious crime, the risk may finally outweigh the potential reward. This could be a real game changer for the conservation of elephants, rhinos, and countless species illegally killed and traded around the world.”
Poachers killed an estimated 100,000 African elephants for their ivory tusks between 2010 and 2012.
On top of the harsher penalties for wildlife traffickers caught in the U.S., the bill hopes to “name and shame” countries that have become poaching and trafficking hot spots. The secretary of state must identify and report on governments that do not adequately protect threatened and endangered species. The bill also gives the secretary of state the authority to withhold certain financial assistance from those countries.
Those are tools the U.S. has lacked until now, said Iris Ho, wildlife program manager with Humane Society International.
“The U.S. is a wildlife conservation leader, and it’s important to call out leaders to make sure international community is banding together and are aware of what countries need to work harder,” Ho said.
Two such countries are Tanzania and Zimbabwe, where elephant populations have plummeted 60 percent and 40 percent, respectively. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has banned elephant trophy imports from those countries, citing both nations' poor conservation records and failure to control rampant poaching.
“This is a global crisis,” Ho said. “We cannot allow some countries to really drag conservation efforts down. We’re talking about losing some of our most iconic species. This language to call out countries is a good way to make sure the international community is aware of who needs to step up to the plate.”
The legislation would allocate more financial and logistical resources to support antipoaching efforts in African countries.
Royce, the bill’s author and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, noted that poaching often is tied to weapons and drug smuggling operations and international terrorist groups.
“Poaching is bigger than natural security,” Royce said in a statement. “It is a national security issue. Wildlife trafficking is now among the most lucrative criminal activities worldwide—worth an estimated $10 billion annually. The very disturbing reality is that some of the world’s most majestic animals have become ‘blood currency’ for rebel groups and terrorist organizations in Africa.”
The bill now goes to the Senate, where it could be put to a vote and then passed on to the president.