I-1401 is flawed but necessary step

An initiative bankrolled by billionaire Paul Allen would make it illegal to sell or trade most ivory in Washington. Initiative 1401 is part of a campaign to make a dent in the market for body parts of endangered animals.

Wild elephants are the largest and most visible target of poachers in Africa. In Tanzania alone, the government said in June that about 65,000 of the majestic creatures —or 60 percent of the population — were killed during 2009-14.

I-1401 discourages illegal trafficking in elephant tusks by taking the value out of most ivory artifacts that are not proven to be at least 100 years old.

But I-1401, which is on the Nov. 3 ballot, isn’t only about ivory. It also bars sales of nine other species, including rhinoceroses, lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, pangolins (also known as a spiny anteater), marine turtles, sharks and rays.

Gary Geddes, director of the Point Defiance Zoo and other animal programs at Metro Parks Tacoma, says high-tech poaching is speeding the rate of kills of elephants and rhinos and that 100 million sharks are slaughtered yearly – many for fins used in soup by Asian restaurants.

On one hand, there is no civilized reason that Washington should allow the sale of parts taken from these threatened and endangered species. Strengthening the state’s prohibitions could fill in gaps in the enforcement of federal laws against the import and sale of endangered animals through our ports.

I-1401 makes it a gross misdemeanor for illegal sales valued up to $250 and a felony with bigger fines and jail for higher valued contraband.

But make no mistake: This measure would have a very small effect globally. Advocates simply hope its influence spreads as other states join in. California recently adopted a ban on all elephant ivory sales, and Oregon has an initiative under way to criminalize trafficking in endangered wildlife.

Critics of I-1401, mainly owners of keepsakes made of ivory, say most elephants slaughtered in Africa for their tusks are killed for the Chinese market for raw ivory. But the U.S. is considered to be a large market, if not the second largest. Geddes and federal wildlife agents say ports at Tacoma and Seattle are potential import sites.

Unfortunately, I-1401 has flaws – not least of which is that it is another case of Washington’s initiative law becoming a tool for the super-rich to leapfrog the legislative process.

Another flaw is that a 100-year cutoff on the age of ivory artifacts is arbitrary. The cost of authenticating antique ivory objects may often exceed their value.

Stu Halsan, a former state senator, and John Regan, an Olympia resident who has run antique malls in Washington and Oregon, warn that the measure could harm people who innocently own hand-me-down ivory products such as jewelry or carvings. Even if they purchased the items legally they could see their investments lose value, although they can give them to heirs via estates.

Halsan said the value of some of his own keepsakes — including an antique ivory dice cup — may only be $1,000. To him, that’s a lot of money; he says that is equivalent to $10 million for someone like Allen, who has provided about $1.7 million of the $2.7 million raised by I-1401.

Efforts to pass reasonable limits on the trade of ivory and other species failed to go anywhere this year in our divided state Legislature. It is often the case that bills don’t pass the first or even second time they are introduced. Causes with less affluent supporters must have the patience to build sufficient support to win passage of their bills.

Allen’s backing of anxious conservationists with the region’s zoos and conservation groups is letting them seek a faster path to action.

The initiative, if passed, can reinforce Obama administration’s effort to crack down on ivory trading. The White House reached bilateral agreements during the September visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to a nearly complete ban on ivory imports and exports.

We support this initiative with misgivings. But its backers’ impulse is the right one. Thousands of species are being slaughtered unnecessarily. It’s time to end the market for these products everywhere.