This month the White House unveiled its "National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking." The report identifies wildlife trafficking—the buying and selling of wild animals and/or their parts—as a problem that occurs both across and within U.S. borders, and it lays out new policies for strengthening the protection of threatened and endangered animals. The report is especially concerned with banning the commercial trade of elephant ivory and rhinoceros horns, which has been increasing in recent years.
I was surprised by what the report says about the ivory trade. For starters, I thought the U.S. already had a ban on such practices. But the report makes it clear that the current policies are not adequate, stating: "we propose to immediately pursue a series of administrative actions to establish a U.S. ban with limited exceptions on elephant ivory and rhino horn trade in response to unparalleled and escalating threats to these species." It goes on to explain part of the problem—"broad administrative exceptions to the 1989 African Elephant Conservation Act moratorium." Evidently there are currently several loopholes that allow people to bring elephant ivory into the U.S. that would normally be banned under the Endangered Species Act.
One such exception is for sport-hunting trophies. The act says, "Individuals may import sport-hunted elephant trophies that they have legally taken in an ivory producing country that has submitted an ivory quota." On the surface this seems kind of nuts: Why should we allow sport hunting of endangered animals to begin with? But while I'm certainly not steeped in conservation politics, I know enough to understand that there are many competing international interests at play and hunters are often valued allies in some conservation efforts (and not so much for others). For example, the act also says, "There is no evidence that sport hunting is part of the poaching that contributes to the illegal trade in African elephant ivory, and there is evidence that the proper utilization of well-managed elephant populations provides an important source of funding for African elephant conservation programs."
Note that the new report does not support an all-out ban on such sport trophies but instead says, "We will limit the number of elephant sport-hunting trophies that an individual can import, adopting the same rule that now exists for leopard trophies." Curious what the current limit is for leopard trophies? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a handy guide for you, "Importing your leopard or African elephant trophy." The short answer is: two per year.
What about rhinoceroses? Sport hunting of some species of rhinoceri is allowed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) but is tightly controlled. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued only one permit (in March 2013) for importing a sport-hunted black rhinoceros shot in Namibia in 2009. The granting of this permit was controversial, although several people and groups have praised it as a boon to rhino conservation because of Namibia's careful selection procedures and the $350,000 that will go toward further conservation efforts. Sometimes there are no easy answers.
While sport hunting is salacious news—in part because very wealthy Americans are sometimes the ones doing such hunting—illegal poaching is the real problem for these animals. The report says that demand for poached rhinoceros horns—and elephant ivory— has dramatically spiked in recent years due to Asia's "rapidly expanding wealthy class that views these commodities as luxury goods that enhance social status."
The report shows a commitment to dealing with the messiness inherent in combating this issue through U.S.-based policies and international diplomacy. The Obama administration is taking a three-pronged approach: strengthening enforcement, reducing demand, and building international partnerships. You can read the more detailed descriptions of these plans in the report.
Let's hope that these actions are fruitful and can prevent 2014 from topping 2013 as the worst year ever for South African rhino poaching, when an average of three were killed per day.