Avella introduces bill drafted by FoA prohibiting import, possession, sale or transport of ‘Big 5’ African species

By Nicole Rivard

Edita Birnkrant, Friends of Animals’ (FoA) campaigns director, joined NY state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Queens) in front of City Hall Wednesday afternoon as he introduced bill s.4686, known as the “Africa Big 5” bill, as it would ban the import, possession, sale or transportation in New York of the African elephant, lion, leopard, white rhino and black rhino. The bill—drafted by Mike Harris, director of FoA’s Wildlife Law Program—and seeks to amend a current state law by including these animals in the definition of “foreign game.”

“I am hopeful today that New York will be a trailblazer among the United States as we lead the fight against importation of these animals, placing an outright ban on importing, possessing, selling and transporting these animals,” Avella said at a press conference. “Hopefully this legislation, if enacted in New York, will send a message to every other state and the federal government, that the practices are inappropriate and that we are going to stop the importation of these body parts through New York. If we pass this legislation we can be a leader of the entire globe on this issue.”

Avella explained that the already minimal populations of the African Big 5 are threatened every day buy illegal poaching and legal sport hunting and are facing extinction. There is growing scientific evidence that the legal trade of trophy-hunted species actually enables the illegal poaching by reducing the stigma associated with killing these animals and by providing poachers a legal market to launder their contraband. 

“The ban eliminates much of the incentive to continue hunting these animals overseas and shipping their remains off to buyers in New York with a high price tag,” Avella said. “It is high time New York take a stand against this horrible practice. By passing this legislation we can ensure that New York, which is one of the largest hubs for importation and transport of these animal carcasses, does not become just another contributor to the inhumane trade of the bodies and parts of these animals.”

At the press conference, the brand new bill got its first so-sponsor in NY State Sen. George Latimer (D-Westchester), who showed up to pledge his commitment to getting the legislation passed. 

“I just want to compliment my colleague Sen. Tony Avella for his leadership on this issue and on many issues that involve animal rights,” Latimer said. “To have a voice in the New York state Senate, you need an individual, a senator, who cares about these things, and who brings these issues up. Tony has been a leader on this and many other issues, including mute swans, where he has shown his compassion and leadership. I thank all the advocates who bring these issues to our attention and make sure we understand what we are fighting for in Albany.”

During the press conference Edita Birnkrant, campaigns director for Friends of Animals, pointed out that recently Dan Ashe, the director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife, acknowledged that Americans make up a disproportionate number of those who continue to travel to Africa to hunt these animals. 

“Sadly, too many Americans continue to see sport-hunting as romantic, or for that matter as ethical,” she said. “Until we can get national bans put in place to reduce the number of sport-hunted African Big 5 species brought into this country, it is vital that state’s like New York, where a large number of these trophies are imported into because JFK is a major point of entry from Africa, take action on their own.” 

If the bill becomes law—anyone violating the law could face up to two years in prison. 

“As the public becomes increasingly aware of the sensitive and complex lives of animals, we are starting to see a momentous end to the abuse of exotic animals on our home soil—with the Ringling Bros. phasing out elephant acts and SeaWorld’s stock plunging 50 percent last year,” said John Di Leonardo, president of Long Island Orchestrating for Nature. 

“Now it is time for the Big 5 to follow suit. Increasingly threatened with extinction, each of the Big 5 are equal parts charismatic and keystone, fulfilling niches in their communities that support entire ecosystems, and they are deserving of our utmost protection.”