Weak punishments for wildlife crime are doing little to prevent the destruction of endangered species, experts say.
According to prominent conservationists and officials, wildlife crime is almost always prosecuted as a misdemeanor, leaving little to deter criminals looking to illegally kill animals for sport or profit.
Conservationists point to ivory trafficking as one example of a wildlife crime that authorities are doing little to prevent. Ivory, usually taken from an elephant’s tusk, commands high prices on the black market, leading poachers to kill 100,000 African elephants in the past three years alone.
Those who are caught with ivory are given just three days in jail, five days of probation, and a $320 fine. Those caught with rhino horn tended to attract much harsher punishment, averaging about 120 days in jail, 99 days of probation and a $78,427 fine.
Data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows violations have increased rapidly since 1999 while fines collected have decreased, only spiking with major cases.
According to Paul Raymond, a retired investigator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the punishment for killing or harassing protected wildlife is toothless.
“Somebody could take an AK-47 and just shoot up a pod of pilot whales,” said Raymond in an interview with E&E Publishing. “That’s the same as a traffic offense.”
While fines vary widely according to the infraction, those prosecuted for wildlife crime rarely see the inside of a cell. When rhino horn is worth as much heroin on the black market, but getting caught with it is much less risky than drug or weapons trafficking, it has attracted the attention of terrorists and organized crime, leaving both people and endangered species in even greater peril.
The United States has laws designed to protect wildlife both at home and overseas, but according to some conservationists, they amount to a slap on the wrist for those few who are apprehended.
Prosecutors are largely hobbled by the Endangered Species Act, which carries a maximum $50,000 fine and up to a year imprisonment for a single infraction. Other laws on the book meant to protect wildlife have about the same penalties. In order to lock away a convict for longer, prosecutors must link their crimes to something bigger in the eyes of the court.
Some lawmakers are working to make that connection easier. S. 27: Wildlife Trafficking Enforcement Act of 2015, a bill co-sponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), would make getting caught with at least $10,000 worth of an endangered species carry the same weight as a racketeering or money laundering offense.
By protecting animals and cutting off revenue streams for terrorists and criminals, the bill looks to attract bipartisan support. It’s also meant to pave the way for a more politically-viable way to protect animals, following the recent difficulties of the Lacey Act.
With tougher laws like S. 27, officials hope to send a message to small-time operators and make the connections needed to unveil and reign in large-scale operations.
With the illegal wildlife trade constituting billions and costing the lives of millions of animals yearly, a single bill won’t be sufficient, but officials says it’s a step forward to ensure that after years of legal impotence, the punishment for poaching and trafficking endangered species will finally fit the crime.