Updates to Lacey Act Needed to Combat Illegal Ivory Trade

Wildlife Whistleblowers

March 3 is World Wildlife Day. Over the past century, the United States has helped lead efforts to combat wildlife crime across the globe. According to whistleblower advocates, by passing legislation protecting and rewarding wildlife whistleblowers, the United States could revolutionize enforcement efforts around wildlife trafficking, including the ivory trade.

Congress first enacted the Lacey Act in 1900 to combat illegal wildlife trafficking. It provides, among other things, penalties for the illegal trading of animal parts, including elephant ivory and other products of endangered species. Congress amended the Act in 1981 to allow the U.S. government to pay awards to whistleblowers. However, these awards are purely discretionary and thus fail to incentivize whistleblowers to come forward due to the significant risks they face. Furthermore, the law contains weak protections for whistleblowers. Therefore, whistleblower advocates claim that Congress must pass legislation to modernize The Lacey Act. According to advocates, this modernization must include solid protections for wildlife whistleblowers and strong incentives for individuals to blow the whistle on illegal ivory trade, wildlife trafficking, and other wildlife crimes.

The statistics on the illegal ivory trade highlight the need for Congressional action. In 2020, an elephant was slaughtered every 15 minutes for its ivory tusks, with little done to prevent these killings. Poaching has caused dramatic harm to wildlife populations for as long as it has been around. Today, only 400,000 elephants remain. While poaching continues to threaten species around the world, many who know about the illegal ivory trade and other forms of wildlife trafficking do not report the crime out of fear of retaliation.

Whistleblowers have already proven their utility in fighting other types of crimes in the United States and abroad, and exposing wildlife threats would be no different. Elephants will be on the verge of becoming extinct if Congress does not create new laws to incentivize whistleblowers to come forward.

Scott Hajost, environmental law expert and chairman of Thinking Animals United, writes in his article “Empowering whistleblowers is the key to combating wildlife crime”:

“Whistleblowers have been incredibly effective in cracking down on financial and corporate crimes. It is time we apply this methodology [of offering protection against retaliation] to the wildlife sphere.”

For example, the Dodd-Frank Act expanded protections for whistleblowers and prohibited retaliation. Under Dodd-Frank, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has implemented rules to take legal action against employers who retaliate against whistleblowers who report securities law violations to the SEC in writing.

Dodd-Frank also created a private right of action, allowing whistleblowers to sue their employers in federal court if they believe they suffered retaliation. This right enables whistleblowers to seek damages such as double back pay, reinstatement into their job, emotional damages, and attorney’s fees and costs.

Under Dodd-Frank, whistleblowers have protection from all forms of workplace retaliation, including termination, harassment, demotion, or discrimination. Whistleblowers also receive financial compensation. They receive 10-30% of the sanctions collected by the government in cases which were aided by the original information.

In contrast, wildlife whistleblowers receive no protection or rewards at all. While whistleblowers reporting on financial crimes receive a slew of protections and benefits, those witnessing wildlife crimes refrain from speaking up due to their lack of safety. This fear is why animal trafficking and the illegal ivory trade continue to flourish worldwide. Guaranteeing protections for these individuals will give the United States law enforcement insight into crimes they would never know about otherwise. The United States cannot send agents to police African safaris or Brazilian rainforests, but it can support those who are already there and willing to blow the whistle.

Ivory Trade in China

According to the 2022 report from the World Wildlife Fund, “from 2008 to 2018, at least 20,000 African elephants were slaughtered each year for their tusks, mainly to supply markets in Asia.” The selling of ivory is still very prevalent in China. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species found that roughly 84% of the ivory sold in China is illegal.

The illegal ivory market in China is still very prominent despite a ban on mainland China. Hong Kong is known as the hub for the illicit trade of ivory due to high demand. Ivory bans are effective in deterring some ivory trafficking. However, the prohibitions force the selling and trading of ivory underground, making it harder to detect. Thus whistleblowers need protection to feel safe when blowing the whistle on this illegal, underground market.

China is one of the leading countries when it comes to SEC whistleblowing, with hundreds of whistleblowers coming forward to U.S. authorities since Dodd-Frank passed. However, whistleblowers in China lack adequate protection to report the illegal ivory trade, allowing the market to thrive.

The United States has the world’s second-largest black market for purchasing ivory. According to Princeton University, the demand in the U.S. has led to an estimated 100,000 slaughtered elephants between 2011 and 2014. Other countries heavily involved in the buying and selling illegal ivory include Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

For Now: The Lacey Act

Currently, whistleblowers can use the Lacey Act if they suspect illegal ivory trading. The Lacey Act is one of the strongest and most comprehensive federal laws used to combat wildlife crime internationally and domestically.

The Lacey Act protects both plants and wildlife by creating penalties for violations, such as the illegal cultivation, buying, selling, possession, or trading of wildlife, fish, or plants. But it also covers the illegal trading of wildlife or animal parts, such as rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory, tiger teeth, animal pelts, and other endangered species products.

Criminal penalties for violating the Act are steep and can include prison time. The penalty for an individual is no more than one year in prison and a fine of $100,000 or twice the gross gain or loss. Criminal penalties for corporations are no more than five years of probation and a fine of $200,000 or twice the gross profit or loss. The government may also impose restitution and forfeitures.

These penalties are a slap on the wrist for those engaged in the illegal ivory trade. While the Lacey Act allows the U.S. government to pay awards to whistleblowers, these awards are discretionary, and the law lacks strong whistleblower protections. The deficiencies in the Lacey Act, including its weak whistleblower provisions, highlight the need for new legislation.

Enter the Don Young Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act.

Don Young WCATA: Critical Legislation for Wildlife Whistleblowers

In 2019, representatives Don Young (R-AK) and John Garamendi (D-CA) introduced the Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act (WCATA). This act can be a powerful new tool that protects environmental whistleblowers and gives them the incentive to blow the whistle on illegal ivory trade, wildlife trafficking, and other wildlife crime.

This bipartisan bill will strengthen the federal government’s ability to detect and enforce wildlife crimes. Unlike the Lacey Act, WCATA mandates confidentiality and anonymity for whistleblowers around the world. WCATA is the first bill to give environmental and wildlife whistleblowers these protections.

According to the National Whistleblower Center, the Don Young WCATA:

“incentivizes reporting by requiring rewards be paid to qualified whistleblowers whose original information results in a successful prosecution… it requires the responsible federal agencies to establish Whistleblower Offices to ensure whistleblower concerns are properly investigated and rewarded.”

In addition, rewards will no longer be discretionary. With a guaranteed minimum award amount, Congress will assure whistleblowers that they will receive a set percentage of the sanction issued for successful claims. Wildlife whistleblowers will receive the compensation they deserve. This act will be monumental in protecting wildlife and environmental whistleblowers as people will feel safe reporting wildlife crimes witnessed worldwide, including the harm done to endangered animals.

The public must show support for this bill to get Congress to act. The National Whistleblower Center is leading a grassroots effort calling for the public to urge Congress to pass the WCATA. Those who support ending the illegal ivory trade and supporters of wildlife justice can join this effort by signing this petition asking Congress to support wildlife and pass this bipartisan bill. The National Whistleblower Center also has launched a wildlife whistleblower pledge campaign.

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