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GOP lawmakers, witnesses blast FWS ivory ban proposal at House hearing
Dylan Brown - E&E News

WASHINGTON, D.C., June 25, 2014 -

With stuffed elephants donated by conservation groups lining lawmakers' desks, everyone at a House Natural Resources subpanel hearing yesterday agreed that African elephants could be driven to extinction within a decade if something is not done about poaching driven by demand for ivory.

"The plight of the elephants demands our undivided attention," said Ian Somerhalder, "Vampire Diaries" star and president of his own foundation dedicated to environmental issues, during his testimony.

All present said it is necessary to undermine the illicit ivory trade, which has become a billion-dollar funding source for international crime syndicates, militias and terrorist groups in Africa and Asia, where ivory is seen as a status symbol.

The international side of the equation appeared settled.

Domestic issues, however, especially the Fish and Wildlife Service's proposed commercial ivory ban, generated disagreement and prompted strong criticisms from Alaska Rep. Don Young (R) and other Republicans.

"For those in the audience who think you're saving elephants, you're going to be killing these elephants," Young said.

The United States remains the second-largest market for ivory in the world, but how much of it is illegal remains unclear, said FWS Associate Director Robert Dreher.

Echoing the concerns of sportsmen, musicians and auction houses worried that the ban, which eliminates commercial imports and restricts exports to all but verified antiques containing ivory, would have a detrimental effect on the value of ivory owned by millions of Americans, Young and other members of his party castigated FWS and lambasted the ban as another federal regulatory overreach, arguing that the ban would unfairly put the burden of proof on American owners to prove their ivory was not the product of poaching.

"Uncle Sam is going to say you have to prove it, you're guilty because we say you are. That is wrong, and this is not going to save the elephants," Young said.

With many older instruments containing ivory, National Music Museum stringed instruments curator Arian Sheets testified about musicians' concerns over the effect of the ban on older, valuable instruments like ivory-keyed pianos and some guitars. Montana Republican Steve Daines pointed out earlier this month that violin bows belonging to the Budapest Festival Orchestra were seized temporarily at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

According to fellow panelist Matthew Quinn of Quinn's Auction Galleries, museums and auction houses could essentially see the devalutation of great swaths of items -- hundreds of millions, he estimated. Many Americans looking to sell grandma's ivory figurine collection would be out of luck.

"Such quick administrative actions ... will adversely impact millions of unknowing Americans," Quinn said in his written testimony, arguing that the guidelines laid out by the FWS are far too rigorous for cases in which people have little to no documentation of items.

Impact of FWS ban on hunting

The ban's effect on hunting also raised Young's hackles.

"There is a value when they can be hunted; there is a value when they can in fact be managed; there is a value when you let a country manage its game," he said.

According to letters obtained by Greenwire under the Freedom of Information Act, sportsmen have been in representatives' ears about the restrictions on importing elephant trophies (Greenwire, June 23). Elephant hunts that cost upward of $10,000 in countries like Zimbabwe were stamped out by the ban, Dreher said, due to questionable management practices and weak governance in some African nations.

Republicans touted Zimbabwe, one of the few nations that opposed the 1989 international ivory trade ban, as a model for using hunting revenue and management to benefit impoverished people.

"The simple truth is that if wildlife have no economic value, there is little if any incentive for people who live in that habitat to conserve or save them," said subcommittee Chairman John Fleming (R-La.).

At the hearing, Itai Hilary Tendaupenyu, principal ecologist for the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, said the United States failed to notify his government prior to making a decision on the ban. He said hunting revenue is critical to Zimbabwe's economy, with approximately 67 percent of proceeds going to local communities. Furthermore, he said, Zimbabwe's elephant population is actually increasing thanks to hunting.

Democrats asked to see the data, but International Fund for Animal Welfare President Azzedine Downes said the evidence for hunting being a boon for local communities simply doesn't exist.

"It's a great sound bite, but there is no evidence to really back it up," he said. "One person comes and shoots an elephant ... the money goes to the safari company, to the people who issued the permit, and what does the community get? Literally a carcass."

Downes doesn't buy the argument that the domestic ban isn't necessary, because he says it targets the demand fueling poaching.

"I think people would like people to think that, that it's not going to have any impact. It's not about dry regulations; it's actually about preventing elephants from being killed -- demand drives it," he said. "You have a piece of ivory? You have to make a decision: the elephant or this? There are losers, but it's worth it."

Both sides agreed on one other thing: Figuring out the age of ivory is a fool's errand.

Testing requires destroying part of the ivory, and criminals are adept at making new ivory look old.

Allan Thornton, president of the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency, who also testified at a Democratic press conference preceding the hearing, said allowing ivory that was harvested pre-ban to be traded gives criminals a loophole large enough to drive a truck through.

Downes agreed: "If someone on the street has to figure out 'Is this piece legal or illegal?' it won't work."

Conservationists applauded the ban as an indication that the United States is taking the lead on the issue. Essentially, Crawford Allan, senior director of TRAFFIC, a partnership between the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, said it gives the United States the high ground from which to influence other countries.

"Let's not lose sight of the main prize here ... and the fact that it's like a catalytic knock-on effect around the world," Allan said.

Three hours after it was scheduled to start, the end of the hearing was marked by bipartisan calls to refocus on that main prize: saving elephants.

How that will be done remains to be seen, but while he said he didn't believe FWS's ban would be effective, former Texas Rep. Jack Fields implored his former colleagues to work together to attack the root of the problem. Fields suggested they hark back to the passage of the original 1989 ban he helped pass.

"We decided that we were going to put collateral issues aside ... if you're really looking at trying to preserve the elephant population," he said.

Contact: Committee Press Office 202-225-2761

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