What does the Republican Party have against elephants?

GOP elephant cartoon

Every once and a while, House Republicans really make me scratch my head. I’m used to the endless anti-environmental “riders” attached to bills that fund the federal government, just one part of a systematic assault on environmental protection that has come to characterize the GOP of late. And I’m accustomed to many of those riders being directed at wildlife conservation. So the fact that Congressional Republicans want uses their budget-setting authority to block the Fish and Wildlife Service from protecting endangered species like the Valley Elderberry longhorn beetle or sage grouse came as no big surprise. Don’t get me wrong, these are terrible ideas, but not terribly surprising ones. But when Congressional Republicans come out against regulating the trade in elephant ivory? Well, that’s something new.

As many people know, African elephant populations are in crisis. Over the last two years 50,000 African elephants have been killed by poachers. The problem has grown so alarming -- and the trade in ivory so profitable -- that many experts now view the illegal ivory trade as a national security problem, because its profits are often used to fund militant groups.

Ivory is difficult to accurately date.  So, while it’s technically illegal to sell ivory in the United States that is not antique or was imported after 1989, surveys have repeatedly found that illegal “blood ivory” continues to be sold in the U.S. by unethical merchants who simply lie about their items age or provenance. The legal market in ivory, therefore, facilitates poaching.

The solution, of course, is the end the commercial market in ivory goods entirely and this past February the Obama Administration announced it would be proposing new rules to do just that.  The exact scopes of those regulations aren’t fully known yet, but we expect the U.S. to propose largely ending the importation of ivory into the United States and further restricting exports. In fact, the Obama Administration has already issued orders clamping down on most commercial imports.

Not if Congressional Republicans have their way. Tucked into the House’s proposed appropriations bill for Department of Interior (see p. 59 for those of you following along at home) is a provision that would stop the Department from issuing or enforcing regulations that “prohibits or restricts the importation of ivory” into the U.S. or “the possession, sale, delivery, receipt, shipment, or transportation of ivory” that has been lawfully imported.

That’s a sweeping prohibition -- essentially, an endorsement of past practices. But past practices don't work. The bodies of 50,000 dead elephants are grim testimony to that fact. Maybe it’s the opposition from the National Rifle Association who (I kid you not) are worried about the ivory grips on their members' fancy pistols.  Whatever the reason, the Grand Old Party certainly isn’t the party of elephants anymore, no matter what its mascot is.