Illegal Wildlife Trafficking Affects California Animals, Too

Seized abalone illegally harvested off the Monterey coast | Photo: KQEDQuest/Flickr/Creative Commons License

If there's such a thing as fashion in global government, then ivory is definitely out this year. In November, the United States destroyed six tons of ivory seized, collected, and housed outside Denver over the last 25 years. The Philippines did the same with its five-ton stockpile a few months earlier. Most recently, China and France joined in. In the wake of these events, the Obama administration today announced a sweeping initiative to help protect elephants and rhinos by stepping up American enforcement of laws banning trade in endangered animal parts.

It's called the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, which will be a broad multi-agency plan to step up domestic law enforcement, strengthen ties with overseas wildlife agencies, and increase public education about the importance of laws protecting wildlife. The move is being lauded as a way to help reduce pressure on elephants, poached for their ivory, and rhinos, whose horns are coveted for ineffective traditional "medicine."

But you don't have to travel to Africa or Asia to see wildlife populations under severe pressure by illegal market hunting. According to wildlife law enforcement officials, several California wildlife species are heavily targeted as well. Illegal poaching of wildlife poses a serious threat to populations of abalone and Sacramento River sturgeon, with even relatively common animals like black bear targeted for illegal trade in their body parts.

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At an online web conference, organized by the Humane Society of the United States, panelists from the law enforcement arms of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, and the state Fish and Game Commission spoke of recent efforts to boost arrests for illegal wildlife trade, in California and across the country. In some efforts, "boiler rooms" full of volunteers with laptops will scour websites like eBay and craigslist to find animals or portions thereof offered for illegal sale, with state or federal game officers sweeping in to make arrests.

In one two-week period in 2012, a USFWS initiative called "Operation Wild Web" resulted in 150 arrests of people attempting to sell illegal wildlife or wildlife parts to undercover officers. Items offered for sale ranged from skins of the critically endangered Sumatran tiger to live animals, some of which are dangerously invasive species in parts of the U.S. (USFWS officer Ed Newcomer, of that agency's Torrance office, identified two such busts as involving attempted sales of walking catfish and piranhas.)

In California, according to Mike Carion of CDFW, abalone, sturgeon, and black bear are the main targets of poachers, but deer, reptiles, lobster, and sharks are also vulnerable. It is astonishingly high prices that drive the poaching. Once a common item in California Chinese restaurants, abalone has become so rare that individual abalones can bring $100-150 each. The gall bladders of black bears, another wildlife part used by the superstitious as an ineffective medical treatment, can fetch anywhere between $200-1,000 in the U.S., and up to $5,000 if smuggled overseas. Illegal caviar from California sturgeons can bring a poacher $50-100 per ounce.

That's a huge incentive to poaching, and it's one that wildlife law enforcement agencies are working to undermine. As an example of how skillful enforcement can remove the incentive for poaching, CDFW law enforcement officer Dave Bess related his 2011 apprehension on the Mendocino coast of a remarkably well-organized group of red abalone poachers. A group of 11 poachers had worked together during an extreme low tide to pose as sport abalone gatherers. Sport harvesting of abalone is legal in season north of San Francisco, with a legal limit of three abalones per person per day, and 24 per year. These poachers had designated a caching spot for their abalones and ended up taking away as many as 400 abalones in a 72-hour period.

Apprehended at their local motel room, the poachers were found with 166 abalone on the premises. One fled to country, but the remainder were hit with more than $71,400 in fines (significantly more than the proceeds they could have made from selling all 400 abalone they're thought to have gathered). They also served about six months in jail and forfeited not only their dive equipment but any possibility of ever possessing a California fishing license ever again.

As Fish and Game Commission president Mike Sutton pointed out during the panel, California's wildlife face other threats in addition to poaching. In some cases, said Sutton, actual legal hunting or harvesting of wildlife may cause greater overall problems. "I actually believe legal hunting that's not sustainable may be a more pervasive problem in California," said Sutton.

But he added that that doesn't mean poaching isn't a big problem in the Golden State. "Every year we see major illegal wildlife trafficking cases right here in California," said Sutton. "And we'll never end that illegal wildlife trade by just hitting the suppliers. We need to bust the demand."

On the national level, the new Obama administration policy document is a little short on specifics, but it says that the White House will be pushing more support to wildlife law enforcement agencies, ordering the appropriate federal agencies to make wildlife trafficking a top priority, and working with Congress to strengthen penalties. It only took moments for the latter process to begin when California Senator Dianne Feinstein said she would sponsor such legislation.

"It is my intention to introduce legislation to enact stronger penalties against wildlife trafficking by making it prosecutable under statutes used for other serious crimes--including drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering," she said in a press statement. "This legislation gives law enforcement agents and prosecutors the tools they need to investigate and prosecute serious wildlife trafficking crimes and send a clear message to the world: The United States will not tolerate these despicable crimes that are decimating the population of elephants and rhinoceroses around the world."

We're likely to see more such announcements in the next few weeks with a global conference on wildlife trafficking being held this weekend in the United Kingdom, hosted by the Zoological Society of London. For its part, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced late Tuesday that it will be tightening restrictions on importing, exporting, and domestic sales of ivory and other elephant parts in the U.S. We'll bring you more on that Wednesday.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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