Massachusetts State House holds marathon hearing on ivory, rhino horn bill

Bill sponsor Senator Jason Lewis speaks at the podium at a press conference on the Massachusetts ivory bill as Rep. Lori Ehrlich, the other bill sponsor, looks on.Massachusetts residents showed up in force on behalf of elephants and rhinoceros, packing the State House for an important hearing on a bill that would ban sales of ivory and rhino horn.

At a morning press conference, the bill’s champions – Rep. Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead and Sen. Jason Lewis of Winchester – spoke of the urgent need for reform. “Your children and grandchildren,” said Ehrlich, “may soon look at elephants and rhinos the way we look at dinosaurs – As creatures so unimaginable that it sometimes feels as though they never really existed.”

Flanked by conservation professionals and a group of young advocates from McDevitt Middle School in Waltham, the legislators stressed that decisive action by Massachusetts would add momentum to a growing global movement. Lewis, who grew up in South Africa, told reporters that the poaching crisis is not one we can ignore: “Some people say this is not our problem. But the fact is we are contributing to this slaughter and bloodshed.”

He’s absolutely right. A 2008 study placed the Boston/Cambridge area as the 7th largest ivory market in the US. And IFAW, in tandem with the Wildlife Conservation Society, published an investigative report this year detailing the ivory trade on Craigslist.com, the popular classified advertising site.

Boston ranked fourth out of 28 metro regions studied in terms of both number of items and overall value of merchandise. Few sellers offered any documentation on the age or provenance of their items, meaning that there’s no way of knowing how many of these products entered the country legally, and how many were from recently poached elephants, smuggled across our borders.

Although the US has strict laws on imports and exports, there’s simply too much volume for port inspectors to be able to keep up. Analysis of data from federal agencies indicates that thousands of illegal ivory pieces are likely to be smuggled into and out of the country each year.  

Every piece of ivory comes from a dead elephant, and we can’t afford the losses that these smuggled goods represent. 

Later that day the Joint Committee on the Judiciary kicked off a marathon hearing on the bill.

Overflow crowds forced a change of location to the biggest auditorium in the building, and by the time it wrapped up, close to 10 o’clock at night, two hundred people had testified, with the vast majority in favor of taking strong steps toward a ban.

I was proud to join an expert panel (including IFAW, the MSPCA, Zoo New England, Born Free USA, and the Humane Society of the US) that laid out the case for reform. The committee members posed some tough questions and are obviously wary of overreaching, but they gave a fair hearing, and our sense coming out of the day is that we are closer than ever to passage of this legislation.

What happens behind closed doors, now, is key to determining whether Massachusetts gets a strong final bill – or whether it withers on the vine. The Committee will try to hash out some compromises (for example, perhaps exempting scrimshaw or antiques from the ban) but there are some lines we need to make sure don’t get crossed.

The biggest ones:

  • No exemptions for newer ivory items,
  • No exemptions for products made mostly from ivory, and
  • No exemptions for any rhino horn.

With your help, we can get this crucial campaign to the finish line.

-PL

If you’re a Massachusetts resident, I urge you to call your state senator and representative – you can find their contact information here – and ask them to support the strongest possible versions of Senate bill 440 and House bill 1275.

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