When two New York City jewelers recently paid $55,000 in fines and forfeited $2 million worth of ivory trinkets made from the tusks of slaughtered elephants, officials praised it as tough action. But that’s not how the World Wildlife Fund saw it. The U.S. is lagging behind other countries -- even China and its appetite for ivory -- in cracking down on the illegal trade, the conservation group told NBC News.
"It's really no deterrent at all" to the organized crime rings providing the raw material, said Crawford Allan, who works for the WWF wildlife monitoring program known as TRAFFIC.
For an illegal industry that brings in billions of dollars each year, he added, such fines are "just the cost of doing business."
The plea deals were announced to much fanfare last Thursday.
"This is an international problem that requires local solutions," New York District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., said in publicizing the fines. "In order to curb the poaching of elephants in Africa and Asia, we need to curb the demand side of the illegal ivory trade right here at home."
The WWF agrees, but feels even more can be done given the severity of the slaughter: a record 23 tons of ivory -- from some 2,500 elephants, were seized globally last year as the population of African elephants continues to shrink. An estimated 450,000 African elephants are living today, down from between 5 million and 10 million in the 1930s.
WWF will single out the U.S. and a few other nations when it starts a campaign in late July to lobby governments to be tougher.
Allan said the U.S. should track domestic ivory sales more closely, set up more sting operations that lead to prison time and go after the sources in Africa, not just the trinket sellers.
"I don't want to belittle Fish and Wildlife," he added, "but they really are under-resourced."
The New York jewelers are a case in point, he said -- they operated in plain sight even though New York state law makes trade in ivory very difficult. Only ivory obtained before African elephants were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1978 may be legally sold and even then a permit is required.
Moreover, it wasn't an undercover operation, but an off-duty wildlife inspector who happened to walk by the stores that led to the seizures.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which leads the federal efforts to crack down on wildlife trafficking, "can't comment on the specifics" of the case because the investigation is ongoing, spokeswoman Sandra Cleva told NBC News.
In general terms, she added, "we have to prioritize our work" since the service has many more cases than its 220 law enforcement agents can handle.
Allan argued law enforcement must prioritize wildlife smuggling since it is so lucrative to criminal networks.
"Interpol is really getting it," he added, noting that the international law enforcement agency last month announced raids that led to more than 200 arrests in 17 African countries as well as China.
The U.S. reported 212 seizures of products made from elephants last year, and 137 of those involved ivory. The rest were skin and hair products, as well as meat and a few other items.
Only seven of the 137 ivory seizures involved more than 10 items.
"These results are very much consistent with previous years in that a relatively large number of seizures are documented, but these seizures are dominated by small volumes of non-commercial items," Danielle Kessler, a spokeswoman for international affairs within Fish and Wildlife, told NBC News.
Allan suggested the U.S. could model its enforcement after China, where 13 criminal gangs were broken up recently and more than 1,000 alleged illegal traders were shut down.
China acted on tips from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which noted that 100,000 police were deployed in the operation that closed down 7,155 shops and 628 websites.
"There are still issues of corruption wherever you go," Allan acknowledged, "but I really feel that China has realized they are responsible for major issues with wildlife ... the Chinese have woken up to that."
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