GOP Senator Hunts for Info on Elephant-Poaching

Louisiana’s David Vitter asks U.S. agency whether foreign government officials are involved.

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National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
May 13, 2014, 11:10 a.m.

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.

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