Washington State Weighs Far-Reaching Law on Animal Trafficking


Kirk Johnson, The New York Times

Date Published

SEATTLE — Wildlife poachers in Africa slaughter rhinos for their horns and elephants for their tusks, and organized crime gangs from Ireland to Mexico have in recent years expanded into the trade of endangered animal parts that can command more money, pound for pound, than even gold.

But many families also have on the mantel, or in a jewelry box, an heirloom made decades ago when a bit of elephant ivory for an inlay, or some sea tortoise shell for its aquamarine sheen, was a legal and unquestioned component of a treasured tourist curio.

On Tuesday, what wildlife experts say could be the most far-reaching statewide law on animal trafficking in the nation — and the first such proposal to go to a statewide vote — will be on the ballot here in Washington State. The new law would condemn and criminalize the modern trade that is wiping out many threatened species but would allow, with strict rules, the antiques that echo an earlier time and fashion sensibility.

Supporters say the measure, backed and funded by Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, would strike a crucial blow against trafficking in animal products, with protections for tigers, lions and marine turtles as well as elephant tusks and rhino horns. Convicted offenders could face up to five years in prison. A similar measure in California — signed into law last month — and two laws in New York and New Jersey passed last year all focus solely on ivory or rhino horns.

Opponents say that however earnest the intentions behind it, the Washington initiative, I-1401, is too strict in looking back at what antiques would be considered legal. Anyone seeking to sell or trade an object containing animal products would have to show provenance of ownership, and the item would have to be at least 100 years old and contain less than 15 percent of any of the animal species covered.

Opponents said that as a result, the law would unfairly demonize owners and strip the value from possessions acquired when elephants and other animals were not endangered and wildlife protection laws did not exist.

“It’s an illegal taking of value,” said Stuart A. Halsan, a former state legislator who collects antiques and is chairman of the Legal Ivory Rights Coalition, which is fighting the proposal.

One statewide poll, conducted Oct. 13-15, suggested strong support for the measure among voters across the political spectrum. In the Elway Poll of 500 registered voters, 66 percent said they were definitely or probably in favor. Republicans were the only category below 60 percent — with support at 57 percent. The poll had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus five percentage points.

Two forces elevate the importance of the measure, both sides said. The first is that Washington State has major ports that have been gateways in the past for smuggled animal products. The second factor is federal: a 115-year-old law called the Lacey Act, which was aimed at stopping interstate duck smugglers who were depleting duck populations so they could supply restaurants in places like New York and San Francisco.

The act created a federal crime of interstate animal trafficking, and federal investigators led by the Fish and Wildlife Service have used it to investigate and prosecute the newer world of endangered species products. So a new state law with an expanded menu of protected species could augment federal investigations around the nation if smugglers or illegal traders used Washington as any part of their base of operations or trade.