Policy Matters: Lions, Tigers, and... Elephants!

The threats facing the world's wild animals and wild places are massive in scale: human populations growing exponentially, ecosystems being destroyed by agriculture and extractive industries, wild animals being slaughtered en masse for their parts (elephant ivory, rhino horn, tiger bone, lion trophies, bear gallbladders, sea turtle shell...), and individual animals captured or bred to languish for a lifetime of living hell in captivity.

For those of us who work on the technical aspects of wildlife conservation, there is often no exciting rescue, no heart-pounding encounters with poachers, no days spent "in the field" tracking animals across the savannah or through the forest. There are only legislative and international policy matters. But, when we can successfully advance the policies that help animals... well, it matters!

The U.S. government recently issued significant policies that may not grab headlines, but undoubtedly advance animal welfare and wildlife conservation.

In April, two rulings gave captive tigers in America--and the people who dangerously interact with them--much-needed protection. One action from the Fish and Wildlife Service requires the sellers of tigers bred from unknown or mixed subspecies to have the same permits as those who breed "pure" tigers, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. This will help ensure that all captive tigers are protected from the greedy ambition of those who see them as only a lucrative asset in the illegal trade in tiger parts.

Separately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture also published a technical note declaring that it is a violation of the Animal Welfare Act for members of the public to handle or feed big cats who are four weeks of age or younger. These cubs should remain with their mothers--not be passed around for sad photo opportunities.

We still have a long way to go to protect captive big cats in America--where, shockingly, there are more tigers in captivity than in all of their wild range--but the effects of these technical policy changes are profound. For example, the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is already ending its tiger encounters as a direct result of the public contact policy.

Meanwhile, a very busy U.S. government also published a final rule further constricting the domestic commercialization of elephant ivory.

As of June 6, sport-hunted elephant trophies are limited to two per year, and most import, export, and interstate commerce of elephant ivory products is prohibited. This is a technical policy matter, yes--and hammering it out was not glamorous work. But, when you step back from the regulatory jargon, the implications for species survival are huge.

Remember that the ivory trade wiped out Africa's elephants in the 1970s and 1980s, when the population was cut from 1.3 million to 600,000. And, while there is a considerable and reasonable outcry against the carving factories of China, and the domestic ivory markets in Zimbabwe and Tanzania, the U.S. sadly remains a commercial hub for the ivory trade.

Additionally, our international colleagues are methodically crafting policies within other spheres of influence. African lion range states met in Uganda recently to determine the state of lion conservation and to identify a road map for saving the species, both through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).

Lions represent a species that has declined by almost half in the past 21 years, with fewer than 20,000 remaining (as compared to 78,500 in 1980). Only 400 of them remain in West Africa, and the only places in southern Africa where the species is stable or increasing are in four countries (where the lions are significantly fenced off from their full natural range).

The 28 lion range states recognize that trade in lion bones adds a significant threat to the species, but the path forward is not a flashy one. It involves requesting a CITES task force to focus on the deadly lion trade as part of an effort to "uplist" Africa's lions to Appendix I of the Treaty, cutting off trade that is primarily commercial. Born Free USA will be at the next CITES meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa to support this hugely important endeavor.

Born Free rescues individual animals in need. Born Free advocates for policies that matter to save entire species. Every decision in our favor is a decision in the animals' favor.

Let's pass laws, regulations, international resolutions, and global proposals that say NO ivory trade, NO lion trade, NO tiger trade, NO rhino trade, NO bear trade, NO captivity for these species, and NO human interaction with them.

The answer does not always need to be showy or easily captured in a single sound bite. Sometimes, advancing inch by inch is the right answer. Policies matter.

Keep Wildlife in the Wild,