Thanks again for visiting and welcome to Part II of my rambling overview of the laws that affect elephants and other large species. The last post in this series covered CITES and other international agreements, and this post will cover US federal law.
US Federal Law: 5 Relephant Statutes
- Endangered Species Act 1973
- The Lacey Act of 1900
- African Elephant Conservation Act 1989
- Asian Elephant Conservation Act 1997
- Animal Welfare Act 1966
Endangered Species Act
Remember how I said CITES isn’t automatically law in countries that signed it? (sure you do!) Well, the ESA makes CITES federal law.
The ESA more or less does four things:
- identifies a species as endangered or threatened;
- determines whether there is a critical habitat for the species within the US;
- restricts government and private action against that species; and
- says the government now has to help save the species.
Let’s apply that to elephants.
- The ESA listed the Asian elephant as endangered in 1976, and the African elephant as threatened in 1978, loosely based on how the species are classified by CITES.
- Because elephants are not native to the US, they don’t have a designated critical habitat.
- Under the ESA, the government now cannot do anything that will further harm the elephant species. For private parties, however, the Act prohibits a number of actions. The Act says a private party cannot “take” a species – a legal term that has a broad definition. It basically means that a private entity cannot do anything to harm the species. (This is where I take issues with zoos – to be discussed later).
- Finally, the ESA instructs the government to take action to help elephants. So, the government passed the two acts we will discuss in a second, the African and Asian Elephant Conservation Acts.
The biggest problems with the ESA in general deal with provisions that don’t really affect elephants, mainly land-use provisions.
The biggest problem with the ESA as it pertains to elephants is all of the exceptions it makes for people that want to import elephants. BornFreeUsa.org has a really clear explanation of this process. It goes like this: if someone wants to import an endangered species, all they have to do is say that it is for “scientific purposes,” or, more commonly, that it will “enhance the propagation or survival of the species.” And they get a “Section 10” permit to import the elephant.
The requirements to get these permits are vague, and so permits are way easy to get, and species are not being conserved or protected like the permit owners/importers are promising.
The Lacey Act of 1900 (last updated in 1981) makes it illegal to trade across state lines in any species that is obtained illegally. Aka, it targets wildlife traffickers. How is it different from the ESA? The Lacey Act “underscores” other acts, by making trafficking a separate crime. The Lacey Act is older than most other relevant legislation, but according to this article, “still powerful.” So, since there is a ban on ivory imports in the US, anyone possessing or trading raw ivory in the US could probably be prosecuted under the Lacey Act. Cool!
African Elephant Conservation Act of 1989
Since the US is a party to CITES and passed the ESA, the US has accepted the responsibility to do something to improve the situation of the endangered African elephant. Congress dutifully passed this act, which establishes the African Elephant Conservation Fund, which gives money to the 37 African range countries (countries with elephant populations), and gives grants to projects that work in those countries. The act also establishes a moratorium (I had to look up this word – it means “suspension of an activity”) on the importation of ivory unless a bunch of conditions are met.
What conditions? Are the restrictions restrict-y enough?
Well, the Act still says sport hunting of elephants is okay, so strike one. Basically, if an ivory-producing country that is a party to CITES has “submitted a quota,” and the hunter “takes” (kills) the elephant in that country, he/she can import the “trophy” (tusks). An executive order under the Obama administration limited trophy imports to two, per hunter, per year.
There are a few requirements a country has to meet for its ivory to be imported to the US. The country has to comply with and be a party to CITES, the country’s conservation program has to be up to snuff, etc.
But, right now all ivory trade is prohibited under CITES, because even the Appendix II populations have little asterisks next to their listings that include those populations’ ivory in Appendix I. So it looks like this Act’s exceptions are pre-empted (means they don’t even matter, because there is a stricter rule out there). This is crazy, but good.
Asian Elephant Conservation Act of 1997
Structured similarly to its African counterpart, this act creates a fund as well. The fund has sent money to eight Asian countries, including Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia. There is nothing about ivory or trophy hunting in this act, since Asian elephants are often tusk-less.
There are SO few Asian elephants left. This grant process should absolutely be utilized more by American non-profits.
Animal Welfare Act of 1966
When it was passed, the AWA was called the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act, because it was sort of in response to people’s pets being petnapped and sold to research laboratories. That’s pretty horrifying. And it prompted investigations into standards of care at all these labs, and apparently the labs were not doing so well providing luxurious conditions for their research animals.
So now we have the AWA, which sets standards of care for warm-blooded animals, but excludes rats and mice, and farm animals, AND cold-blooded animals. So really, only cute/furry animals. What?
But it’s better than nothing, and people are always making noise about strengthening the law, and giving it more dollars to operate.
What does it mean for elephants?
Well, the AWA, by law, applies to “exhibitors,” which includes zoos and circuses. It prohibits keeping animals in conditions with “overheating,” “trauma,” “excessive cooling,” “physical harm,” and “unnecessary discomfort.” It only suggests the very minimum standards of care for animals.
What are the problems?
The problems with the AWA as it pertains to elephants deal with vagueness, weak standards, and enforcement. Some terms in the act such as “unnecessary discomfort,” are not defined. What is “unnecessary?” What is “discomfort?” The standards are not clearly outlined for different types of species. More importantly, even if the standards were higher, there are only a handful of inspectors for thousands of zoos and circuses. It’s unlikely problems will ever be uncovered.
Another reason the AWA does not do much to help elephants besides prohibit huge, obvious acts of mistreatment, is because elephants require more than other species. Elephants need more space to constantly move; they need to be able to forage for their food; and they need to socialize with elephants of their own herd. These needs are simply not taken into account by the AWA.
State and Local Law will be covered in Part III! Thank you for reading.