We can join fight to stop poaching of endangered species

Kids love animals. And I was no different. Growing up, I devoured books about elephants, lions, tigers and sharks. Reading about these iconic species helped open up the world around me and made far-away places feel like my backyard.

Fast-forward to today and these same species are now in danger of disappearing forever from the wild. I believe it is unacceptable to stand by and allow these animals, whether it’s due to poaching or habitat destruction, to disappear in our lifetimes. That’s why I am enthusiastically supporting Initiative 1401, a statewide initiative on the ballot this November to help save animals facing extinction.

While the slaughter takes place in Africa or Asia, much of the market for endangered animal products exists right here in the United States, including in the state of Washington. Our combined ports in Tacoma and Seattle constitute one of the largest entry points for goods from Asia, and that includes illegal animal products. Since 2010, federal agents at the Port of Seattle have taken more than 50 enforcement actions related to trafficking in elephant products alone. Yet none of those actions have resulted in any jail time for the traffickers.

Initiative 1401 strengthens penalties for trafficking in animal products like ivory or rhino horn taken from animals that are threatened because of exploitation or poaching. The measure is designed to help save elephants, rhinos, lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, pangolins, marine turtles, sharks and rays in the wild by cutting off the demand that fuels the slaughter.

The scale of the slaughter is immense. Currently, one elephant is killed every fifteen minutes for black market ivory; there are only 450,000 elephants left in Africa, and 30,000 are being killed each year. In Asia, fewer than 3,500 rhinos are left in the wild, while only 25,000 remain in Africa. Fully 97 percent of the world’s tiger population has disappeared over the last century. As illegal poaching and wildlife trafficking has emerged as the world’s fourth largest transnational crime, we are within a decade or two of presiding over the disappearance in the wild of some of the world’s most recognizable animals.

As a legislator, I can tell you from first-hand experience that our elected representatives — at the federal and the state levels — are failing us on this issue. Though the public strongly opposes this illegal trade, special interest groups continue to successfully lobby at the congressional and state level to stop any effort to strengthen laws and penalties aimed at protecting these endangered creatures.

That’s why I-1401 is so important. If this initiative passes this November, Washington state will be the first state in the country to pass a law like this by a vote of the people. That precedent will reverberate nationally and internationally, and it will encourage other states to move forward with their own laws. Eventually, if enough states take action, it will pressure Congress to act before it is too late for these wonderful animals.

I-1401 was written in consultation with animal conservationists. It is deliberately targeted at those who are profiting from this cruel and illegal trade, not at ordinary Washington residents who might want to pass on a treasured family heirloom. I-1401 includes a carefully considered set of exemptions for things like bona fide antiques, musical instruments, or items used for legitimate scientific or educational purposes. And it creates a special fund for fines generated from the increased penalties, with the proceeds from the fund going to pay for enforcement costs.

Animal conservation experts know that strengthening these penalties is a critically important step in cutting off this illegal trade. I-1401 is supported by leading organizations including The Humane Society of the United States, WildAid, Washington Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, Seattle Aquarium, Point Defiance Zoo &Aquarium, Woodland Park Zoo, and many others around the country.

It is my great hope that in working together to approve I-1401, our generation won’t be one of the last ones to grow up reading books about these incredible creatures, discovering that elephants exist in the wild and that the world is a great big place worth protecting. Please join me in voting yes on Initiative 1401.

Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, represents the 21st Legislative District.

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