Three Cheers for Dianne Feinstein and Lindsey Graham: Senators' New Bill Would Bring the Hammer Down On Wildlife Traffickers

elephant family (photograph by Elly Pepper)

One of the biggest obstacles to ending the illegal wildlife trade is weak penalties. The United States is a prime example. As the value of wildlife products has skyrocketed, low fines and minimal prison sentences under federal law make it increasingly worth the risk for wildlife traffickers, who stand to gain millions in illegal profits.

That's why Senator Dianne Feinstein's (D-CA) Wildlife Trafficking Enforcement Act (S. 27), co-sponsored by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), would make such a big difference. S. 27 makes egregious criminal violations (defined as those involving more than $10,000 in wildlife products) of the Endangered Species Act, the African Elephant Conservation Act, and the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act predicate offenses under racketeering and money laundering statutes. In other words, it treats wildlife trafficking for what it is: organized crime, no different than narcotics trafficking or wire fraud.

Currently, violations of wildlife trafficking laws result in small fines and/or six to twelve months in prison--a mere slap on the wrist when you consider the kind of money involved. But S. 27 creates penalties of up to twenty years imprisonment and up to $500,000 in fines. The bill also requires that the fines, forfeitures, and restitution paid by traffickers go to a wildlife conservation fund created , which would help a vast array of species.

By strengthening penalties, S. 27 will deter criminals from trafficking. It will also encourage law enforcement and prosecution to pursue wildlife trafficking crimes. Finally, it will show the world that the United States is serious about combating wildlife poaching by equating wildlife tracking offenses in line with other serious organized crime. For these reasons, S. 27 is broadly supported by groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, World Wildlife Fund, Humane Society of the United States, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

As shown in a recent survey of California's ivory market commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the United States has a big problem when it comes to illegal ivory. S. 27 would help to end that market and our country's contribution to the illegal wildlife trade.