Green Cities

EDN Spotlight: DC Councilmember Mary M. Cheh

Earth Day Network has launched its Earth Day 2019 campaign to protect our species, which identifies 2019 as a crucial year to advance and protect laws, policies, regulations, and international cooperation agreements for species protection from threatened rollbacks. Here, highlights from a conversation with DC Councilmember Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) to discuss the Elephant Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Trafficking Prohibition Act of 2019. You are a co-sponsor of the Elephant Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Trafficking Prohibition Act of 2019. What does the bill do and why does Washington, D.C. need this legislation now? This bill will ban the import, sale, offer for sale, purchase, barter, or possession (with intent to sell) of ivory and rhinoceros horns in the District of Columbia. The penalties for violating the law include fines, imprisonment, or both. Several coastal states have passed laws banning the importation and sale of ivory and rhino horn in recognition of the need to supplement and support federal laws which take aim against the international market. With each new state law, the market has shifted to new jurisdictions and, because the District does not have any laws regulating this industry, the market has moved here. This shift reflects an opportunistic international market and not the interests or values of local residents: I am certain that my constituents would be distressed to learn that the District of Columbia has been named as “the new hub for ivory sales” in the United States by National Geographic. Washington, DC, receives millions of tourists each year and supports thousands of local jobs and businesses. In 2016, over 22 million visitors spent over $7 billion in the district alone. What advice would you give to residents and tourists in the District of Columbia that would help stop the illegal wildlife trade at the local level? Let’s address this question with the facts: after China, the United States fosters one of the largest ivory markets in the world and is a significant destination for rhino horns. To fuel these markets, an average of 96 African elephants are poached each day. While I do not personally understand the appeal of an ivory trinket, should a resident or a tourist come across any product made of ivory or horn, I would challenge that person to just walk away and not make a purchase. We cannot financially support this market or any of the practices associated with it. Limiting the demand for ivory and horns is key to stopping the unnecessary and inhumane slaughter of these animals — and we cannot wait. Why are conservation actions at the state and local level particularly important right now? With this type of legislation, we have the rare opportunity to take a small action locally that will contribute to the closing of an international market which targets endangered species and perpetuates brutality against our world’s most vulnerable animals and the brave people who protect them –several of whom lose their lives every year in this effort. The ivory market is constantly shifting around the country and, if an earlier iteration of my bill had passed back in 2015, the market would not have moved here at all. We must not sit passively while the ivory market thrives in jurisdictions without regulations. If this bill becomes law, the District would join nine states who have enacted similar laws restricting or banning the sale of ivory and rhino horn. What can you tell us about the bill’s current status and chances of passage? I have introduced the “Elephant Ivory and Rhinoceros Horns Trafficking Prohibition Act” three times in three different Council Periods (2015, 2017, and 2019). While the legislation has yet to pass, I have been able to garner more co-introducers and co-sponsors with each new reintroduction: the key in this effort is persistence. The current bill has received a hearing and now needs to be “marked up” out of the Judiciary Committee to receive full Council consideration. I have been told by Judiciary Committee staff that the chair of that committee is interested in advancing the legislation this spring. Barring any Congressional interference, I expect this bill to pass this year. We are currently living through the sixth mass extinction on Earth as a result of our impacts and choices as humans. What advice can you give to other lawmakers across the nation about the urgency to address the issues facing biodiversity loss? There is only so much pressure that animals can endure; pressure caused by habitat loss, dwindling or changing food sources, the loss of symbiotic biodiversity, pollution exposure, and the devastating effects of climate change — and we are dangerously close to hitting that threshold. These animals, be it local or international wildlife, need champions at every level of government. It may take persistence, campaign building, partnerships with advocacy organizations and, yes, multiple introductions of protective wildlife legislation, but that work is invaluable to our planet. Can you share a story about a time you felt inspired and connected with nature and wildlife? I grew up in a rural area, so I have always felt a close connection with nature. Living among animals was a daily experience and rescuing wildlife in trouble was a regular occurrence — you might say it was my mission. Rescuing and helping stranded animals in the road, in my backyard, and in my neighborhood has been one of the constants in my life. And I’m proud to say that it is also a constant occurrence in my adult children’s lives too. As we approach Earth Day (April 22), what activities or events do you have planned to help protect our species? On Earth Day and the weekend prior, I will be participating in a variety of community clean up efforts in one of the District’s largest and most valuable natural resources: Rock Creek Park.
You can follow Mary Cheh on Twitter at @MaryCheh, on Facebook, and learn more about her work at