Fight ivory, other species trafficking here

We’ve made the point before that Washington state’s ports are responsible for a major portion of the export-import business in the U.S. The combined container ports of Seattle and Tacoma are the third busiest container ports after New York/New Jersey and the Los Angeles area.

But not everything imported into Washington is legal, including shipments of elephant ivory and products harvested from other of the world’s endangered species. Since passage in 1972 of the federal Endangered Species Act and in 1973 of an international treaty on endangered species, trafficking in ivory and other products from those species has been illegal.

Since 2010, there have been more than 50 seizures of elephant products at Washington ports. But none of those seizures resulted in convictions with significant jail time.

Poachers, some of them helping to finance terrorists and criminal militias overseas, are profiting from the destruction of species. With an estimated 470,000 African elephants in the world, 30,000 were reported slaughtered in 2012 for their tusks. There are fewer than 40,000 Asian elephants in the wild. African lions, which number about 200,000, could become extinct in the wild by 2050. In the last century about 97 percent of the tiger population has been eliminated and only an estimated 3,200 remain in the wild. Loss of habitat is a major factor in species decline, but poaching of these animals also contributes to losses.

Earlier this summer, the Obama administration announced it was changing regulations to ban interstate trade of most ivory and cut off commercial imports of ivory.

Voters now have the opportunity to strengthen laws here that would make it riskier and potentially more costly for traffickers in endangered animal products to come through Washington state, joining similar efforts in New York and California, that would make those major ports less attractive to traffickers.

Initiative 1401, if approved on Nov. 3, would prohibit anyone in the state from buying, selling, trading or distributing parts of 10 endangered animal species, specifically elephants, rhinoceroses, tigers, lions, leopards, cheetahs, pangolins (also called scaly anteaters), marine turtles, sharks and rays. Violation of the law could be charged as a gross misdemeanor or class-C felony and could result in up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for the most serious offenses.

The initiative makes a few exceptions to protect the owners of antiques and musicians whose instruments have parts made of ivory. Items are exempt if they are more than 100 years old and if less than 15 percent of their parts are ivory.

Those exemptions aren’t sufficient to protect innocent owners of ivory and other items, said Stuart Halsen, an attorney and former Democratic state legislator, who is opposed to the initiative. The 100-year limit is arbitrary, he says, and the law would require owners who wished to sell an item containing ivory to show proof of its age and where it came from.

It is a high bar, admits state Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynn-wood, who is volunteering with the Yes on I-1401 campaign, but that’s necessary to make convictions stick for major traffickers, and Liias believes it won’t be used to go after someone selling a family heirloom.

Washington state is a long way from the African savanna and Asian forests, but our position as a state with major ports of entry requires state residents to address the issue of endangered animals and the trafficking in ivory, fur, meat, shells, organs and more. While other countries have a responsibility to protect their wildlife, the United States and individual states have a responsibility to reduce the demand that encourages poaching.

I-1401 gives law enforcement another tool to fight trafficking, encourages other states to adopt their own laws and also offers an opportunity to learn more about the animals now threatened with extinction and work for their protection.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated the number of tigers remaining in the wild. There are an estimated 3,200.

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