WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress gave final legislative approval Wednesday to a bill boosting efforts to combat illegal wildlife poaching and trafficking, a growing problem worldwide with an estimated cost of up to $10 billion a year.
The House approved the bill by voice vote, sending it to the president. The Senate approved the measure last week.
The bill is intended to protect animals ranging from lions, elephants and rhinos to exotic birds and sharks. It supports ongoing work of a presidential task force of wildlife trafficking and directs U.S. agencies to work with countries affected by wildlife crime, such as the 2015 killing of Cecil the lion by an American during an illegal hunt in Zimbabwe.
It also gives prosecutors more tools to go after individuals involved in trophy hunting and other crimes and requires the State Department to provide Congress with an annual list of countries considered major sources, transit points or consumers of wildlife trafficking.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called wildlife trafficking "a growing global crisis that is devastating precious wildlife, fueling corruption and weakening governments."
The number of African elephants has shrunk by 30 percent since 2007, primarily due to poaching. Rhinos, tigers and other iconic species also are at risk.
Criminals, anti-government rebels and even terrorists take advantage of the illicit trade in wildlife products to fund their operations, often supported by violence and even murder, Royce said.
"Cracking down on poaching and wildlife trafficking will not only help protect some of the world's most majestic animals, it will strengthen U.S. national security," he said. "We can't afford to let gangs and terrorists continue to slaughter some of the world's most iconic species."
John Calvelli, vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, called the bipartisan legislation a good step toward stopping the illegal wildlife trade. The bill strengthens U.S. laws targeting wildlife traffickers, including authority to crack down on money laundering, he said.
"The U.S. can play an important role in stopping this serious transnational crime, and we applaud this bipartisan effort," Calvelli said. Royce sponsored the House bill, while the Senate effort was led by Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
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