Proponents say I-1401 would provide another tool to fight illegal wildlife trafficking that imperils species. Opponents, however, say the law would not stop poaching but would penalize antique owners.
Every day, David Boone gets calls and emails from folks eager to sell him ivory.
But Boone, who owns one of the only companies in the U.S. that deal in elephant tusks, isn’t buying anymore.
The Jefferson County man is waiting to see how his fellow Washingtonians vote on Initiative 1401, a sweeping measure to fight poaching by outlawing sales of elephant ivory, leopard skins, shark fins and parts from dozens of other imperiled species.
If the initiative fails, Boone can easily lay his hands on hundreds of tusks legally imported decades ago as hunting trophies. “There’s millions of dollars’ worth of ivory just here in Washington,” he said.
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If I-1401 becomes law, Boone Trading Company will be out of the elephant business.
“If it makes an impact on poaching, I’m all for it,” said Boone, who’s been working with ivory for three decades. He’s skeptical, though, that clamping down on antiques in Washington will save elephants in Africa.
But proponents argue the initiative represents a powerful stand against the wholesale slaughter and trafficking that threaten the survival of a host of animals, from the iconic elephant to the obscure pangolin, or scaly anteater, killed by the tens of thousands for meat and Asian folk remedies.
“This illegal trade is so out of control right now that we need to do something,” said Sam Wasser, who directs the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. “We’ve got to fight this at every level we can.”
Wasser uses DNA analysis to identify poaching hot spots and trace shipments of illegal ivory. His work has helped reveal the role of organized-crime cartels in the booming trade, as well as the toll on elephant populations.
Scientists estimate poachers kill between 30,000 and 50,000 elephants a year, of a total population of less than half a million.
A complex web of federal laws and treaties already restricts wildlife trade, including a ban on most ivory importation. During his recent visit to Kenya, President Obama announced proposed rules that would also shut down most interstate sales of African elephant ivory.
But commerce within states is less tightly controlled in some cases, which advocates say creates an opening for illegal products. For example, it’s legal to sell African elephant ivory in Washington if the owner can prove it came into the country before 1990, when the animals became protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Ivory-sales bans have been proposed in more than 20 other states. The first three to adopt new laws — California, New York and New Jersey — were targeted by conservationists because much of the illegal wildlife trade flows through their ports.
“In Washington, we have an opportunity to lock down another major port state,” said Jennifer Hillman of the Humane Society of the United States, which donated $125,000 to the I-1401 campaign.
More extensive bill
The Washington initiative, launched after the Legislature rejected a bill focused on the ivory trade, goes much further in its scope. In addition to elephants and rhinos, it would extend to tigers, lions, leopards, cheetahs, pangolin and multiple species of marine turtles, sharks and rays.
The breadth reflects the interests of Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen, who bankrolled the initiative. So far, Allen has donated $1.7 million of $2.7 million raised.
The initiative would make it a crime to sell, trade or give away — except through inheritance — almost anything made from the species covered. The most egregious violations would be punishable by up to five years in prison and a $14,000 fine.
The only exceptions to the ban are certain musical instruments and antiques documented to be at least 100 years old and that contain less than 15 percent by volume of ivory or other animal products.
Most ivory objects — from antique letter openers and chess sets to bead necklaces and carved tusks — won’t qualify for an exemption.
That has drawn opposition from ivory collectors, antique dealers and the National Rifle Association, which is concerned about ivory-handled guns. Critics also point out that Washington state law already makes it a crime to possess illegal wildlife, regardless of its origins.
“What this initiative does is take your heirlooms, from back in the time when they didn’t know there was anything like an endangered species, and makes them valueless,” said Centralia attorney Stuart Halsan, of the Legal Ivory Rights Coalition Committee. The committee, the only registered group fighting the initiative, has raised no money.
Halsan, a lobbyist and former Democratic state legislator, owns several ivory artifacts, including a lady’s shoe horn and dice cup from colonial America. Given the disparity between his net worth and that of Paul Allen, Halsan said, taking away the value of his ivory collection is the equivalent of snatching a $10 million painting from the Microsoft billionaire.
Conservationists counter that the only way to stop poaching is to eliminate the markets that drive a worldwide, illegal trade in animal parts estimated at nearly $20 billion. The U.S. is a major destination for many of those illegal products, but its role in fueling the slaughter of elephants for ivory remains a matter of debate.
Asian hot beds
Experts agree that the bulk of poached tusks and raw ivory is smuggled into China, Thailand and other Asian countries.
“From this perspective, the U.S. ivory market does not appear a significant threat to elephant populations,” analyst Daniel Stiles wrote earlier this year.
But there’s no doubt illegal ivory does make its way to American cities.
Two businessmen were indicted in 2010 for smuggling ivory from Africa to Thailand, then into the U.S. labeled as “toys.”
In 2012, agents seized more than a ton of ivory carvings, dyed to look like antiques, smuggled into the U.S. by the owner of an African art store in Philadelphia.
Stiles himself recently identified more than 100 shops in San Francisco and Los Angeles selling ivory jewelry, carvings and other objects — about half of which appeared to be of “recent manufacture.”
Distinguishing bona fide antiques from fakes is so difficult that it’s easy to use the legal ivory trade as cover for illegal ivory, said Aaron Pickus, communication director for the I-1401 campaign. “Ending the demand cycle completely is our best shot at saving these species,” he said.
In Washington, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service database shows 26 enforcement cases involving elephant parts since 2008, and 23 cases involving other species that would be covered by I-1401. The cases vary from seizure of trinkets declared by travelers, to trophy elephants with improper documentation.
Earlier this month, federal fisheries agents confiscated more than 2,000 pounds of shark fins being smuggled from Guatemala to Hong Kong through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, labeled as “dried shark skin.”
The big unknown is how much illegal wildlife is passing through undetected, said Erick Marek, Fish and Wildlife’s resident agent in charge of Washington and Idaho.
“Are there containers full of rhino horn coming into this country? Probably not,” he said. “But are there containers full of less charismatic species? Most definitely, yes.”
With only seven inspectors and eight agents to cover a two-state territory, the agency’s enforcement efforts are spread thin — at the same time traffic through the region is on the upswing, he added.
Backers say passage of the initiative could boost enforcement by extending authority to state wildlife agents. But those agents already have their hands full protecting local animal species, said Mike Cenci, deputy chief of enforcement for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“Poaching is a 365-day-a-year event in the state of Washington, and frankly, we can’t keep up,” he said.
The initiative includes no new state funding for enforcement, but a portion of fines collected would go into a fund that could be tapped for investigations.
State efforts alone will never be enough to curtail international poaching, Wasser acknowledged. When it comes to elephants, the biggest demand is clearly in China, which until recently resisted any efforts to crack down on the ivory trade.
But partly because the U.S. and individual states have been willing to take steps to further restrict ivory sales, Chinese President Xi Jinping made an unprecedented pledge to follow suit with a near-complete ban on ivory sales.
It remains to be seen whether China will make good on that pledge, Wasser said.
But that country, one of Washington’s leading trade partners, will take note of the outcome of the election here, he predicted.
“We are a critical port, and we get a tremendous amount of commerce from Asia,” he said. “Asia is looking at what Washington state does.”
Boone, the ivory merchant, says his company will survive, no matter the outcome of the election. He’s been using up his remaining stores of elephant ivory, crafting it into pistol grips, selling chunks to craftsmen, and passing on high-quality tusks to collectors.
Now, he’s gearing up to specialize in ivory from a species that went extinct thousands of years ago and isn’t protected by modern wildlife laws: woolly mammoths.