Seattle: A Shipping Hub For Exotic Animals
The killing of Cecil the lion in Africa sparked worldwide outrage and led to strong feelings from both animal advocates and the general public. However, much of the public’s reaction to the incident failed to acknowledge that trophy hunting goes way beyond this one incident that sparked such condemnation. Every year, people from all over the world engage in trophy hunting much like Walter Palmer, Cecil’s killer, and most of them bring home a trophy as proof of their alleged hunting prowess. While Cecil’s case was shocking and public, it was not necessarily unique.
This investigative report from the Seattle Times looks into the exotic animal trade, with a specific focus on the importance of various port cities in the importation of trophies. Gathering statistics from more than a decade, the author notes that since 1999, more than 39,000 African trophy animals have been legally shipped through the port city of Seattle alone. The article looks in particular at how U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) inspectors go about monitoring the kinds of items that are imported into the country, and the list is mind-boggling. The author notes that during a one-hour period, inspectors saw “the mounts of a baboon, caracal, gemsbok, waterbuck, giraffe, impala, warthog, zebra, blue wildebeest, bushbuck, eland, kudu, nyala, hartebeest and blesbok — all shipped from South Africa.”
Though this list of animals may be shocking, the “big five” of trophy hunting are: white rhinoceroses; elephants; leopards; cape buffaloes; and lions like Cecil. However, there is movement to try to stem the flow of trophies into the U.S., in the hope that it will impact hunting itself. Initiative 1401, a campaign in Washington State backed by Paul Allen, would criminalize the sale and distribution of parts and products of ten species. The list includes elephants, tigers, and lions. The campaign aims to “reduce the incentive for trade and the poaching of these animals,” however, the author of this study notes that according to federal data, fewer than one percent of trophies from Africa are imported for commercial purpose. In other words, because the trophies are generally of a personal nature, they would not be subject to the constraints of this initiative.
The trade of animals, especially those endangered or threatened, is governed by CITES, but this article notes that it can be hard to distinguish what is legal and what isn’t. While the statistics above represent legal importation, part of the problem is that illegal shipments can be packed with legal ones, and inspection agents, who are charged with enforcing both CITES and the Endangered Species Act, are unable to search and catch everything. There are certain allowances for hunting, and hunting species in danger of extinction can be legal if there is documentation showing that they were legally hunted and exported.
This article is a wakeup call showing how widespread trophy hunting is. The fight to protect endangered species from something as frivolous as trophy hunting is being fought on many fronts. The USFWS is trying to limit lion imports to those coming “from countries with a scientifically sound management plan,” and animal advocates are attempting to seize upon Cecil’s story to pressure airlines to restrict trophy shipments. While the USFWS inspectors interviewed for this study generally thought that “well-regulated sport hunting can be beneficial if a community and country can manage to conserve a population,” this article rightly notes that current regulations are rarely well enforced. Still, there is a silver lining: HSI have stated that 42 airlines have banned wildlife trophy shipments in the aftermath of the Cecil story. Though there is still a long way to go, there is evidence that public opinion is continuing to turn and animal advocates are making a difference.