Sen. David Vitter is asking U.S. conservation officials whether they have evidence linking government officials from United Arab Emirates or other Middle Eastern countries to the illegal poaching of African elephants — and the extent of bribery or other public corruption involved.
In a letter to the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Dan Ashe, the Louisiana Republican explains that he is searching for a "better understanding" of the situation on the ground in Zimbabwe and Tanzania — and what exactly the U.S. government is doing to assist protection of the African elephant in those countries.
Vitter, the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has often joined other conservatives in charging that the Obama administration uses the Endangered Species Act to — in his words — stomp on the property rights of Americans.
At the same time, Vitter has insisted that he strongly supports protecting endangered species and fragile ecosystems. In the plight of African elephants, he has found a cause.
A Vitter spokesman, Luke Bolar, explained Tuesday that the senator's inquiry about activities of foreign-government officials results from "some things that have been brought to the senator's attention" and that he is "just trying to get more details." The Fish and Wildlife Service has not yet responded to his letter, dated Monday.
Elephant-poaching, much of it carried out by organized criminal gangs tied to the illegal ivory trade, has risen sharply in Africa in recent years. In Tanzania, for instance, the slaughter has reached such alarming rates that its elephant population could be wiped out in seven years, conservation experts told a United Nations conference as recently as last week.
"There is absolutely no question about the devastation that illegal poaching is causing some of our most iconic species," Vitter told Ashe. "It is imperative that we find the best means forward to prevent illegal poaching in Africa and to mitigate additional threats to the survival of the elephant."
Vitter requested information on what the U.S. knows about whether "bribery or other inappropriate financial transactions" are encouraging poaching, whether Middle Eastern investors are involved, and whether there are any "foreign advertising campaigns" that promote poaching of protected or endangered species, including the African elephant, from Zimbabwe or Tanzania.
"Given the research you have done in regards to global corruption on these issues, have you discovered or acquired evidence that government officials within the United Arab Emirates or other Middle Eastern governments have been involved in efforts to harvest African elephants in large numbers that are unsustainable?" Vitter asked.
Vitter's letter follows an April 4 announcement by Fish and Wildlife that it was suspending imports of sports-hunted African elephant trophies taken during 2014 from Zimbabwe and Tanzania. "Questionable management practices, a lack of effective law enforcement and weak governance have resulted in uncontrolled poaching and catastrophic population declines of African elephants in Tanzania," the agency said.
"In Zimbabwe, available data, though limited, indicate a significant decline in the elephant population. Anecdotal evidence, such as the widely publicized poisoning last year of 300 elephants in Hwange National Park, suggests that Zimbabwe's elephants are also under siege," the announcement said.
"Additional killing of elephants in these countries, even if legal, is not sustainable and is not currently supporting conservation efforts that contribute towards the recovery of the species," the announcement said.