The macabre side of this story is straight out of a Stephen King novel: Poachers slaughter endangered wildlife, often hacking off tusks, horns or skin while the animal is still alive. The highly valued products are concealed in cargo containers holding other import commodities and smuggled to ports of call all over the world.
The ports of Seattle and Tacoma, which, combined, constitute the third largest port in the nation, are no exception. Eighteen international coastal ships enter the ports in an average week, carrying the equivalent of over 16,400 containers filled with furniture, auto parts, games, toys, apparel and footwear. Hidden somewhere within this cargo are the remains of endangered species.
This is where a detective or inspector with expertise in wildlife trafficking might best pick up the story. If you could find one. Eleven inspectors handle all border crossings, SeaTac and marine ports in the state. Only 1 to 2 percent of all cargo unloaded at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma is even inspected. Even so, officials found more than 100 illegal animal parts at the Port of Seattle between March 2010 and December 2014, including elephant, leopard, tiger, polar bear, crocodile and zebra, according to a report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The violation report was released following a FOIA request by backers of Initiative 1401, a ballot proposal that would make selling, purchasing or trading certain animals threatened with extinction a gross misdemeanor or class-C felony, punishable with up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The initiative covers 10 endangered species, among them elephants, lions, leopards, tigers, rhino, marine turtles and pangolins — cocker-spaniel-sized creatures whose scales are used for medicinal purposes.
Supporters say I-1401, which is being bankrolled by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, will help stanch the flow of illegal wildlife parts by closing loopholes in the law, instigating tougher penalties for those who are caught, and raising money for tougher enforcement. Opponents say it will only turn law-abiding citizens into targets.
A multi-billion-dollar industry, wildlife trafficking is a complex web of poachers, black markets, and money laundering. Shipments routinely hold contraband that is falsely labeled and often transferred from one ship to another to avoid detection.
“It's right up there with drugs, arms and human trafficking,” says Gavin Shire, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s chief of public affairs, who authenticated the violation report provided to I-1401 backers. In fact, he says, many cartels are engaged in more than one of these illegal trades.
A major part of the problem, says Shire, “is that we don't have enough inspectors.”
There are federal penalties for illegal wildlife trafficking. Under the Lacey Act, traffickers can face fines as high as $500,000 and up to five years in prison, according to Shire. Violations of the Endangered Species Act can bring an additional $50,000 fine and up to a year in prison.
But ivory trafficking from increasingly endangered African elephants is so out of control that states with major ports in the U.S. are taking action to stiffen penalties. California, New Jersey and New York have passed laws banning the sale of ivory over the last year. The laws complement a new federal proposal to ban the sale of ivory across state lines.
Elephants have declined nearly 95 percent in the last 50 years, says Sam Wasser, Director of the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology, who analyzes seizures of over a half a ton, primarily tusks, from all over the world. “There's a tremendous urgency to get the trade under control before all the animals are lost," says Wasser, who has called the the illegal wildlife industry the "extinction economy." But "it's complicated to police,” he says.
The issue needs to be addressed at several levels, Wasser says, from law enforcement where the animals are killed, all the way through elicit transit and on to final end-users.
Federal officials can seize wildlife parts being smuggled into the country, but Mike Cenci, deputy chief for law enforcement with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, says enforcement is sparse. “The only Fish and Wildlife inspectors I've ever encountered,” he says, are at Canadian border crossings and at SeaTac. “Maybe they do some work [at marine ports], or maybe when Customs calls they arrive, but I'm not aware of any routine inspections."
Jason Holm, a regional U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent, says his agency has made 45 seizures so far this year, 37 of which had “discrepancies of some kind” — false paperwork, incorrect permits. But he was unable to specify at what entry points the seizures took place or what the contents were.
Once ivory and other illegal products are inside borders and in a state, says Wasser, “then it’s really up to local officials to do something about it. If states don't have laws to address the problem they really have no reason to enforce it.”
Washington state has two existing laws to deal with possession and unlawful trafficking of fish, shellfish and wildlife. Of the 10 species I-1401 seeks to protect, sharks are the only ones covered by these laws – and the initiative would strengthen restrictions on shark products, too. In addition to the more severe punishments, I-1401 would require individuals convicted of smuggling to pay a penalty of between $2,000 and $4,000, which would be deposited in a fish and wildlife enforcement account.
Opponents of I-1401 say it may be well-intentioned, but it will do nothing to curb ivory trafficking. Instead, they say, it will turn law-abiding citizens into the targets of law enforcement actions.
“It's insane,” says scrimshaw artist Pete Lange. Ivory is the canvas he's used for decades for this original American art form developed by whalers. “These guys would go out on three- to five-year cruises to keep the lamps lit, and had a lot of spare time. They had these whale teeth,” says Lange, “and they started doing artwork on 'em.”
Lange says he has enough raw ivory for several lifetimes and it's all legal. He owned a company called North Coast Trading for years before retiring a few years ago. Agents raided his place in the 1980s but “they walked out with zero, because we did everything legal.”
He made his last purchase in the ’80s from an unlikely source: the Seattle school board. Lange bought eight palettes containing almost a thousand pounds of ivory scrap. The school board got the scrap from a company that operated in the area in the ’50s, he says. In fact there were three big companies in the state that made ivory jewelry and artwork, he recalls, all for the Alaska tourism trade that thrived after the war and often relied on Washington state artists to fulfill demand.
“We all love elephants," says Lange. “Nobody wants to see animals being killed, but no one has ever accused me of anything illegal.”
Lange and others who oppose I-1401 formed the Legal Ivory Rights Coalition. The group includes collectors, antique dealers and state representatives. The NRA, which helped kill a bill designed to thwart ivory trafficking in the legislature last year, has also weighed in. NRA spokesman Lars Dalseide says most people don't have receipts for heirlooms or other items that are perfectly legal such as firearms with inlaid ivory pistol grips, musical instruments, jewelry or art.
I-1401 supports say the polls are tilting in their favor. Jennifer Hillman with the Seattle office of the Humane Society of the U.S., an animal rights organization, says the average voter is horrified that wildlife trafficking is still happening and that Washington is part of the problem. “Animal welfare groups are looking across the entire country at where major markets and entry points are to come up with a strategic plan to combat the overall crisis.”
Opponents of the measure wouldn't say if they'd conducted any polls. But they're not convinced the state has a wildlife trafficking problem, particularly in ivory. They blame the problem on poachers all over Africa, and China's appetite for ill-begotten tusks.
But while China is the world's largest market for ivory, the U.S. is the second-largest. Obama and President Xi of China signed an agreement to ban ivory last month, but it remains to be seen how the agreement is enacted on the ground.