Will Hawaii Help Protect, Or Kill, Elephants And Rhinos?


Todd Simmons, Honolulu Civil Beat

Date Published

After having failed at the Legislature in the past two sessions, bills to ban the sale of endangered wildlife parts and products are moving forward in both the state Senate and House this year.

They face favorable odds toward final passage, according to those behind the legislation.

After passing the Judiciary Committee on Thursday, House Bill 2502 now awaits action by the full House. Senate Bill 2647 cleared the Senate earlier this week and now faces two committee referrals. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources has submitted testimony in support of both measures.

The bills are a response, in part, to a report two years ago that identified New York, California and Hawaii as the nation’s top three ivory markets.

Tusks taken from elephants would be among the animal parts banned for commercial trafficking in Hawaii under two bills currently moving through the Legislature.

Elephant poaching for ivory tusks has decimated populations around the world; but pachyderms aren’t the only animals that would be protected under the Hawaii bills. Sales of products and parts from species ranging from endangered rhinoceroses to walruses to Hawaiian monk seals would be banned, along with those from a long and colorful list of other threatened animals.

Those sales already are illegal under federal law. But once products made from those animals are smuggled into the United States, proponents say it’s tough to stop their illegal trade — unless the states where it’s taking place have their own laws against it.

New York and California already have passed such laws, and wildlife activists are concerned that without its own law, Hawaii could become the nation’s top state for those illegal sales. The Hawaii market is already thick with “white gold” products coming in from Mexico, the Philippines and other nations, said Trisha Kehaulani Watson of Honua Consulting, a Honolulu firm that specializes in environmental and cultural concerns.

Last June, federal agents arrested several people associated with a Honolulu jewelry store for allegedly shipping sperm whale teeth and walrus tusks into Hawaii, then transporting them to the Philippines to be made into traditional Hawaiian fish hooks for sale in Waikiki and at the Ala Moana Center mall.

New York and California have already passed such laws, and wildlife activists are concerned that without its own law, Hawaii could become the nation’s top state for illegal ivory sales.

“We know that product is coming into Hawaii from multiple sources – not just Asia. That’s what’s most alarming,” Kehaulani Watson told a Civil Beat Editorial Board meeting on Friday. “And they’re selling it as supposedly Hawaiian products.”

Passing a state law would make it easier for authorities here to clamp down on the illegal trade and make Hawaii part of the solution in stopping poaching that is driving some species to the brink of extinction, advocates say.

“If we can eliminate the commercial incentive, then at that point, we can start chipping away at what’s happening halfway around the world,” said Blake Oshiro, a former legislator and senior aide to former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, now executive vice president at Capitol Consultants of Hawaii.

Authorities aren’t sure exactly how big this business is in Hawaii; Interpol estimates that only about 10 percent of illegal shipments are caught at national borders. When those animal parts are turned into consumer goods, it’s hard for tourists or locals to know whether what they’re purchasing is part of the problem, Watson said.

“I don’t think people buy things callously,” she said. “We need to educate consumers that ivory sales here could be contributing to the decline of a species.”