The global illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth 10 to 20 billion dollars. Every month there are seizures of elephant ivory, rhino horn, frozen pangolin carcasses, and both whole live animals and dead animals confiscated while being smuggled across borders. Interpol estimates that what is apprehended is likely just 20% of the actual amount of illegal wildlife trade actually taking place.
This trade is massive in both scope and scale.
Asian markets - in particular the countries of China, Thailand and Vietnam - are often cited as the primary destination for illegal wildlife, which is accurate. However, other markets play important roles as well, and we continue to see illegal wildlife products ending up in Europe, the Middle East, Russia and the United States.
The U.S. is thought to be the second largest market in the world for wildlife products, and among the top consumer nations for illegal wildlife products. If you don't think the US is part of the problem, check out investigations of US ivory markets found in storefronts, online, and in auction houses - all showing robust wildlife and ivory trade happening right here in the US of A. To combat this, earlier this year, the White House--in a very public statement with China--said they would enact a nearly complete ban on the import and export of ivory. The proposed federal ivory regulations would help achieve this goal.
Unfortunately, the U.S. laws are facing stiff opposition from the NRA, trophy hunters, and some niche industries that still use ivory, like musicians, knife carvers, and auction houses, so it is not a sure-thing that they won't be watered down or undermined by a hostile Congress before this is through. And perhaps, most importantly, the federal regulations do not govern intrastate commerce.
That's why state ivory ban campaigns are so important. California's governor recently signed a law banning ivory sales, which follows similar victories in New York and New Jersey. And of critical note, Washington State is right now voting on a law that would stop wildlife trade in a suite of species including elephants. The importance of this vote cannot be stressed enough, as every time another state bans ivory sales, we continue to cut off markets for blood-ivory here in the U.S., further bolster the pending federal regulations, and show other countries around the world that killing elephants for ivory should not be tolerated.
The wildlife trade is massive, and it is brutal. But we are making progress. And the U.S. has a huge role to play. Change for the better is happening, so there is hope, and it is growing - on the global, federal and state levels. We hope Washington voters will follow suit to ensure an ivory ban is passed. Because this isn't just an issue abroad. It's an issue right here on American soil.
Jeff Flocken is the North American Regional Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).