Beyond Cecil the Lion: How the Lacey Act Protects Wildlife and Plants around the World

Author(s)

Emily KaldjianLoretta Cheung

The killing of Zimbabwe’s iconic Cecil the lion has sparked media attention and outrage around the world. Zimbabwean officials and the public are calling for the extradition of Walter Palmer, the U.S. game hunter who reportedly paid $50,000 to guides who lured the animal out of its sanctuary and onto private land, where the lion was killed and its skin and head were removed. The United States is reviewing options for legal action through the Endangered Species Act. There is also a newly introduced measure, the CECIL Act, though lions have not been listed as a threatened species.

Palmer may be punishable in the United States under the Lacey Act, however, if he brought any part of the lion into the country. Passed in 1900, the Lacey Act was the first federal law to protect wildlife by making it unlawful to import, export, sell, acquire or purchase wildlife that is taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of U.S. or international law. The penalty for violating the Lacey Act depends on the market value of the product and whether the offender knew the product was illegal; a misdemeanor violation carries a fine of $10,000 and imprisonment of up to a year, a felony violation carries a $20,000 fine and imprisonment of up to five years.

The Lacey Act is enforced regularly: in 2014, the United States indicted a pair of poachers for selling animal hunts in violation of South African law, and in March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would deny all requests to import the remains of elephants sport-hunted in Zimbabwe after 2013, stating a lack of information about the legality of hunting elephants in that country.

The Lacey Act applies to more than wildlife. In 2008, the law was amended to include plants and plant material, including paper and timber. This was the world’s first ban on trade in illegally sourced wood products, and has been followed by similar laws in the European Union and Australia. The plant product amendments have been used in four investigations to date: two involving a major U.S. guitar manufacturerone related to a small business and the most recent one on Lumber Liquidators.

Poaching remains a huge global problem, particularly in regions like southern Africa where poachers can fetch immense sums for animal parts such as rhinoceros horn, which is worth approximately $30,000 per pound on the black market. This has led to the significant decline in large animal populations, endangering the survival of the species and the ecosystems that depend on them. Similarly, illegal logging remains a pandemic: from Malaysia to Mozambique to Madagascar, loggers cut down valuable trees to meet commercial demand, despite the dwindling availability of these species. Trees such as the Siamese rosewood and big-leaf mahogany, which can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars on the black market in China, are trafficked by criminal organizations at higher prices than narcotics. There are now 49 tree species listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (known as CITES).

Laws like the Lacey Act are meant to serve as demand-side deterrents to the illegal taking of wildlife anywhere on Earth. Because of this law, anyone bringing illegally obtained wildlife and plant products could face enormous reputational and legal risks, as demonstrated in the case of Cecil the lion.