Representative Don Young Hopes to Enlist Whistleblowers to Combat Illegal Wildlife Trafficking

Wildlife Whistleblowers

The African elephant is under attack, and has been for some time. Of the roughly 400,000 African elephants alive today, nearly 20,000 are poached every year for their ivory tusks, which can be sold for great prices on the black market. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the greatest current threat to African elephants is wildlife crime. But even though there are no wild populations of African elephants in the U.S., Representative Don Young (R-AK) has a bill he thinks can combat wildlife crime, with the help of whistleblowers. The Wildlife Conservation & Anti-Trafficking Act (WCATA, or H.B. 864) was introduced to the House on January 30, 2019, by Representatives Young and Garamendi (D-CA). The bill had broad support from both Democrats and Republicans but was sent to committee for revision. Soon, it will be up again for a vote.

WCATA has received widespread support from wildlife advocacy groups such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the Wildlife Trafficking Alliance (WTA). On August 12, these organizations joined forces with other NGOs to promote World Elephant Day. The event drew attention to the continued poaching of Asian and African Elephants for their ivory and the thriving international ivory trade. Although the poaching rate has fallen in the last decade, elephants are still poached at a dangerously unsustainable rate. However, the continued success of the ivory trade relies on a thriving black market where ivory can be sold. 

Young explained in a recent interview with the Whistleblower Network News that increased protections and incentives for whistleblowers are built into the bill. Young described whistleblowers as “our eyes and ears on the ground” and “invaluable partners in the fight against illegal hunting and fishing.” WCATA aims to establish whistleblower reward and protection systems, similar to the successful reward systems at work for the False Claims Act and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. WCATA would modernize and update the U.S. government’s approach to fighting illegal fishing and poaching by making wildlife violations and trafficking offenses prosecutable under RICO organized crime statutes. It would also embed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers in American consulates and embassies abroad, and protect wildlife whistleblowers from retaliation. WCATA would protect wildlife not just on U.S. soil, but also internationally, allowing U.S. agents to identify traffickers and report them to local authorities. Instead of only targeting poachers, WCATA would attack the illegal wildlife trade itself, cracking down on international demand for raw products like African elephant ivory. 

The international wildlife and seafood trade is the fourth most profitable illicit market in the world. According to a 2019 report by the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, it is often linked to larger criminal organizations. Young pointed out that “The U.S. State Department has determined that illegal hunting and fishing often attracts transnational crime such as human rights abuses and forced labor.” By making serious poaching and trafficking violations punishable under federal racketeering and organized crime statutes (RICO), WCATA would discourage these activities both in the U.S. and internationally. Defendants prosecuted under RICO could be legally linked and charged for the crimes of other members in their criminal organization. 

Young’s bill would encourage more whistleblowers to step forward to report wildlife violations and protect them more effectively after they have blown the whistle. Whistleblowers anywhere in the world would be guaranteed anonymity and confidentiality so they would not be at risk for retaliation. Young has characterized wildlife whistleblowers as ‘invaluable partners,” and WCATA would finally treat them as such, mandating rewards for all whistleblowers who provide information about wildlife crime leading to a successful prosecution. WCATA goes even a step further than guaranteed anonymity and expanded rewards; it includes a mandate that money recovered from fines, forfeitures, and restitution be funneled back into international conservation efforts. Directing money recovered from the illegal wildlife trade back to essential environmental NGOs would greatly help future conservation efforts while not costing American taxpayers an extra dollar. 

When asked how this bill has such bipartisan support at such a divisive time in American politics, Young said: “I introduced the bill with my friend Congressman John Garamendi, a Democrat from California. Republicans and Democrats alike care about protecting wildlife so that future generations can experience it for themselves. Very frankly, our bill is common sense, and a great example of how Congress should be governing.” He continued on to say that grassroots support of the bill would be essential in getting it passed: “Support in the House is crucial. I encourage everyone to get involved in the governing process by contacting their Members of Congress and asking them to cosponsor our legislation.” With the help of grassroots support, Young believes he can get WCATA passed and whistleblowers working to protect wildlife everywhere.

Read the National Whistleblower Center’s page on WCATA here.

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