Wildlife trafficking is a systemic social problem as well as a law enforcement issue

By Nicole Rivard 

At the International Wildlife Trafficking Symposium held at Quinnipiac School of Law Nov. 8, audience members gasped when they heard that it is estimated that for every one African lion found in Africa, there are 80 in captivity in the U.S. alone. 

They responded similarly when they learned about the scimitar-horned oryx, addax and the dama gazelle, all antelope species native to northern Africa. Each of these species struggles to survive in the wild. But at the same time, there is estimated to be between 10,000 and 15,000 individuals of each species on hunting ranches in the state of Texas alone. 

Michael Harris, attorney and director of Friends of Animals’ Wildlife Law Program, shared the startling information during his talk, which focused on shifting the burden of protecting the world’s fauna back onto developed countries, like the United States, that are the largest offenders when it comes to both legal and illegal importation of exotic species, and how the Endangered Species Act can effectively be used to end wildlife trafficking. 

For decades, international efforts to combat these crimes have largely focused on legal mechanisms to stem the supply of wildlife from exporting counties to importing counties. But the result “has not been good,” according to Harris, as many highly trafficked species are on the verge of extinction in their home ranges.

Audience members were also surprised to learn that wildlife trafficking ranks third in international trade crimes, behind drugs and human trafficking, and ahead of guns. 

“The problem with all these crimes is that they are difficult to track. We really don’t know how bad any of them might really be,” Harris said. “But regardless, this is a terrible list, and the fact that wildlife trafficking is on it is astonishing. Some of the estimates I have read suggest that illegal wildlife trafficking may be a $20 billion dollar a year activity.

“All three of these crimes have caused great debate on how to solve them. That is, are they wholly a law enforcement problem, or are they a more deeply rooted social problem?”

Harris believes law and society are intricately bound, especially in the case of wildlife trafficking, and that a successful law will transform over time from being an individual obligation to a bona fide ethical responsibility. He cited two examples of the transformation from legal obligation to social norm in our lifetimes—drunk driving and slavery.

“Humankind did not just decide one day that slavery was immoral. Many had to be forced to accept that slavery was no longer the social norm,” Harris explained. “They were forced through legal obligation. But before such an important law was made, there must be a reason for a group of individuals to question the old norm. I suggest that the reason was the transmission and mental digestion of meaningful information on the impact of slavery.

“Maybe a right to ethical consideration can do the same for wildlife, by providing us the information needed to question the old norm of torture and enslavement.”

Unfortunately right now there are many things fueling the norm of torture and enslavement caused by wildlife trafficking, according to Harris. 

They are:

● A desire for exotic pets, an area that FoA is specifically focusing on in its legal and advocacy work.

● Belief that they are amusing. Harris showed an ad from “Animals r Us,” where you can arrange for monkeys, wild cats, exotic birds, kangaroos, baby African antelopes, and much more to come to your next home or office party. There are literally thousands of such outfits and roadside attractions in this country alone.

● An appetite for exotic meat. 

● A market for animal products for medicinal purposes in the U.S. as well.

● A desire for animals as trophies. This includes the killing of an animal in its native ranges to transport to the U.S. its parts—horns, heads, tusks, etc., but also the practice of hunting captive-breed exotics in the U.S., often referred to as a “canned hunt.” 

What is also unfortunate is that with regard to wildlife trafficking, the United States has generally failed to punish, or to deter, let alone to create a new social norm. 

“The Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act are 40 years old. But instead of being heralded as universal successes, they take a lot of criticism and are called ineffective, cumbersome and mere litigation drivers,” Harris said.

“But I am an optimist. I believe that these laws can still be effectively used to end wildlife law trafficking.  The truth of the matter, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, remain two of the strongest and effective environmental laws in the world. You don’t have to look any further than the issue of climate change. While the federal government has essentially failed to enact any new climate change law, advocates have been able to use both of these two existing laws to keep pushing the ball forward, forcing the government to disclose the effects of climate change on wildlife and the environment. As a result of these efforts—using existing law—the argument for changing the current social norm—to do nothing to address climate change—is getting stronger and stronger. 

Harris said that he also believes using the laws properly can help build the argument for an animal ethical transformation, the likes of which Aldo Leopold struggled his whole life to define.

Sadly government agencies like the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) current interpretation of the ESA permitting provisions is completely backwards thinking, in effect turning the act’s conservation purpose on its head. They are using the ESA to legitimize the harvest of both captive-bred and wild endangered species.

Harris pointed out that USFWS has failed to justify how the killing of endangered species for sport and money promotes a true conservation ethic. Furthermore, a duel market in which the trade of some animals of a species is legal, but the trade of other animals of the same species is illegal, will more often than not:

● Increase demand for wild stock;

● Remove stigma, and thus legitimize, ownership of these animals and their parts;

● Be used to launder illegally wild-caught animals.

“It is incumbent on all of us pro-wildlife advocates and lawyers to keep the pressure on USFWS to do so,” Harris said. “I believe at the end of the day, these ‘theories’ proffered by the agency will fail—legally and scientifically. At that time, maybe we can reconnect with the real conservation ethic embodied in the ESA.”