13 Feb 2014: Analysis

Amid Elephant Slaughter,
Ivory Trade in U.S. Continues

In the last year, the U.S. government and nonprofits have put a spotlight on the illegal poaching of Africa’s elephants and Asia’s insatiable demand for ivory. But the media coverage has ignored a dirty secret: The U.S. has its own large ivory trade that has not been adequately regulated.

by adam welz

On a cool, bright day last November, hundreds of journalists, environmentalists, and politicians gathered on the outskirts of Denver to watch U.S. officials drop almost six tons of contraband elephant ivory into a mobile-home-sized rock crusher. The rumbling machine soon reduced

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©Adam Welz
The U.S. "ivory crush" was meant to signal a stronger stance against poaching.
the raw tusks and tourist carvings into piles of pebbles and clouds of sour-tasting dust.

The ivory represented most of the U.S. government stockpile, and it had been seized from smugglers, tourists, and illegal sellers over the previous 25 years. Its dramatic destruction was designed to send the message that the U.S. was taking the lead in fighting the scourge of poaching, which now kills an estimated 35,000 of Africa’s elephants annually, about one-tenth the remaining population.

The "ivory crush" capped a year of strong rhetoric from U.S. government and conservation nonprofits that had framed the illegal killing of elephants as a threat to national security – ivory profits, the message has been, fund terror groups. The burgeoning demand for ivory in Asia was blamed for the
The Obama administration announced this week that it plans to toughen U.S. ivory trafficking regulations.
upsurge in poaching, with China cited as the largest market, followed, most experts said, by Thailand and Vietnam.

Yet amid all the media coverage, little attention has been paid to the U.S.’s own trade in legal and illegal ivory, which experts say, trails only the very largest Asian markets. It’s legal to sell African elephant ivory imported before 1989 and Asian elephant ivory removed from the wild before 1976 within the U.S., and illegal sales regularly occur under cover of the legal market – a ton of illegal ivory was seized in a single raid on New York stores in 2011. Ivory in the U.S. is largely unmonitored, and the laws regulating it are antiquated, confusing, and shot through with loopholes. In addition, the agencies tasked with enforcing these laws are underfunded and chronically short-staffed.

If 2013 was a year of talking about ivory trafficking, conservationists hope that 2014 will be a year of action. This week, the Obama administration announced that it will change regulations in the coming months to ban interstate sales of all ivory except certified antiques; limit elephant trophy imports to two per hunter; cut off commercial imports of antique ivory; and increase certification requirements for the remaining trade.

While conservation groups are applauding these planned moves, they note that Congress needs to pass additional laws to increase penalties for violations and approve additional funding needed for enforcement. The
'You can go into New York City, or Wahington, D.C., or San Francisco, and there’s ivory for sale.'
U.S., conservationists say, still has a lot of work to do.

Edward Grace, deputy assistant director for law enforcement at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, calls the U.S. "a large consumer of ivory." Although recent ivory seizures in Asia dwarf those made in the U.S., he says, "you can go into New York City, you can go into Washington D.C., you can go into San Francisco, and there’s ivory for sale.

"The price of [raw, uncarved] ivory ten years ago was less than $1,000 a pound," but it now sells for "almost $1,500 a pound," says Grace, which indicates steady or increasing demand.

In 1989 the U.S. enacted the African Elephant Conservation Act, which placed a moratorium on the import of most African elephant ivory. Under the terms of the act, ivory imported into the U.S. before 1989 – called ‘pre-ban’ ivory – is legal to own, use and sell. Ivory imported after the law went into effect is generally not legally saleable, unless it’s a worked antique item that is at least a hundred years old, in which case its sale is allowed under a so-called "antiques exemption."

According to figures recently sourced from government agencies by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), more than 7,500 ivory carvings and 1,746 elephant trophies (with two tusks apiece) were legally imported into the U.S. between 2009 and 2012. Thousands more ivory pieces, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of loose tusks were legally imported during the same period. IFAW found that ivory valued at more than $1 million was available for sale via online auctions in a single month in 2013.

The fact that pre-ban and antique ivory is legally sold, generally without certification, presents a serious problem for law enforcement. Even with high-tech tools, there’s often no way to tell pre-ban from post-ban ivory, or a real antique from a new piece of ivory that’s been distressed or discolored to look like an antique. Authorities can find it impossible to tell African elephant ivory from Asian elephant ivory, which is regulated under different laws, or from any number of other ivory-like substances: mammoth ivory, hippo teeth, walrus teeth, warthog tusks, and so on. Many times the only means of identifying specific types of ivory is via expensive, destructive lab tests, says Grace.

As a law enforcement agent going into a store, he says, "if you ask how old the ivory is, the first thing you’re going to get is it’s either a hundred years
There currently is no requirement for pre-ban ivory to be certified or documented in the U.S.
old or it’s pre-ban – and a lot of times that’s based on nothing.

"It’s not like you walk into a store and find someone selling cocaine, which is illegal on its face."

Pending implementation of measures proposed by the Obama administration this week, there currently is no requirement for an item of pre-ban ivory to be officially certified or documented, and its sale does not need to be recorded. Antique ivory must be certified under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) if it’s to be imported or exported from the U.S,. but its mere possession does not require that.

In addition, a 1997 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling weakened the 1989 African Elephant Conservation Act by shifting the burden of proof on to the government in ivory cases: To successfully prosecute someone under that law, the government now has to show that he or she knew they were in possession of or selling African elephant ivory imported after 1989 and also knew this was illegal.

"The illegal ivory is hidden a lot of times in plain sight, with dealers claiming it’s legal ivory," says Grace. He notes that cases against sellers of illegal ivory usually have had to be built through expensive, time-consuming undercover investigations. "We’ve got to work into these groups so [they] will tell us. ‘Oh, we know this ivory’s not a hundred years old’."

The proposed regulatory changes will place the onus on ivory sellers to provide documents to prove an object’s origins and age, which, say agents, should significantly ease enforcement.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has about 200 agents across the U.S., and a single ivory or rhino horn investigation can occupy up to 30 agents and take 18 months. Grace notes the overstretched agency has the same number of agents as it did in the late 1970s, even though "many more species have been added to the Endangered Species Act," which the service is charged with enforcing. Federal officials have not clarified how they plan
The patchwork of state and federal laws tends to confuse consumers and can complicate enforcement.
to increase staff levels in light of the newly announced enforcement strategy.

A handful of states including New York, Illinois, and California have passed state ivory laws, and others, like Hawaii, may do so soon. These can assist law enforcement — New York, for example, requires ivory dealers to have a permit, which discourages some illegal traders. But the patchwork of state and federal laws tends to confuse consumers and can further complicate enforcement.

The simplest situation in which to prosecute ivory traffickers has been when they bring illegal ivory across U.S. borders, according to Grace. Transporting illegally taken (poached) or illegally sold ivory across national or state borders is a violation of wildlife and smuggling laws, which carry heavy penalties. But many ports of entry don’t have trained wildlife inspectors, and much cargo — for example, ship-borne containers — is not inspected at all.

Although ivory sale restrictions enacted by relatively simple regulatory changes and state legislatures could be an important tool to slow the illegal trade, there are important legislative actions that only Congress can take, says Ginette Hemley of the World Wildlife Fund-US, particularly with respect to increasing the penalties for ivory trafficking.

"We want to see wildlife crimes treated as serious crimes," she says, "which means invoking other statutes for example which apply to narcotics trafficking and money laundering and serious fraud.

"We want to see a broader suite of actions that really puts teeth into the system."

Many conservationists are concerned that any restrictions on ivory sales and imports might be weakened in the future in the face of opposition from antique auction houses that sell high-value goods containing ivory and from sport hunting organizations.

Washington-based sources who did not want to be named told me that restrictions on the importation of sport-hunted elephant trophies and tusks were unpopular among members of Congress, some of whom are enthusiastic sport hunters themselves. "No one [in Congress] will talk to us


Monitoring a Grim Rise
In the Illegal Ivory Trade

Illegal Ivory Trade
For two decades, TRAFFIC’s Tom Milliken has tracked the illicit ivory trade that has led to the continued slaughter of Africa’s elephants. In an interview, Milliken talks about the recent increase in ivory seizures and the criminal gangs that supply Asia’s black market for ivory.
about ivory if we mention restrictions on sport-hunted trophies," says one policy advocate for a large nonprofit organization.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s official position is that controlled hunting does not represent a threat to African elephant populations, although it does acknowledge that some sport-hunted ivory has been illegally sold on the black market. And the figures obtained by IFAW indicate that more elephants are legally killed by U.S. hunters than are poached in some African countries.

Beth Allgood, IFAW’s campaigns manager, emphasized that new regulations and laws regarding ivory need to be as simple and easy to enforce as possible. "Whatever gets done through whatever process, it just can’t be complicated," she says.

The U.S. "has a major problem at home" says Elizabeth Bennett, vice president for species conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society, "but historically, the U.S has led the way in terms of species conservation for the whole world through its Endangered Species Act and its contributions to CITES.

"From that point of view alone, even if it’s not the single biggest market [for ivory], it could really set an example by addressing it."

POSTED ON 13 Feb 2014 IN Biodiversity Climate Policy & Politics Policy & Politics North America North America 


Destroy all ivory, old and new, whenever it becomes available. The only way to end the trade is end the demand.
Posted by simon rickman on 15 Feb 2014

Adam Welz correctly identifies the United States as one of the world’s largest markets for ivory. That is one reason the Obama Administration’s release last week of its National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking and its tightening of restrictions on the importation of ivory into and within the U.S. was welcomed by global conservation organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

This week also saw the release by WCS’s Samantha Strindberg and Fiona Maisels of findings indicating that Africa’s forest elephant population has shrunk by a staggering 65 percent since 2002. Meanwhile, the Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry joined representatives of the world’s leading conservation organizations in London to launch United for Wildlife. The group issued a declaration calling for governments to crack down on traffickers with more aggressive prosecution and penalties.

If the United States is to do its part, all advocates for elephant protection must continue to apply pressure to our elected leaders. In New York, a key hub for the ivory trade in the U.S., State Assemblyman Robert Sweeney is already working on a bill to impose a ban on all ivory sales in the state. WCS has been developing a constituency for such a ban in New York and across the nation through our 96 Elephants campaign, named for the number of elephants killed daily in Africa in 2012.

The 96 Elephants campaign is working to raise awareness on a range of steps still needed to eliminate the commercial ivory trade in the U.S. Welz rightly notes that a requirement that ivory dealers show documentation for ivory allegedly acquired before the 1989 ban will need legislative action. Visit our website, 96elephants.org, and help us generate the needed public support in order to protect the world’s elephants before it’s too late.

John Calvelli
Executive Vice President for Public Affairs
Wildlife Conservation Society
Posted by John Calvelli, Wildlife Conservation Society on 18 Feb 2014

All ivory must be banned. It is time we place the value on elephants' right to exist on this planet and reject material, man-made ivory. Ivory is a concept, a dead thing, not beautiful. Tusks on a living elephant, in contrast, embodies great beauty.

We are thrilled that the USA is banning all commercial imports of ivory trade with its new presidential strategy. We at the same time call for new state and federal laws to ban all antique ivory trade including domestic and export USA traffic. Be the change.

For future generations and the betterment of the earth, outlaw all ivory trade.
Posted by Jen Samuel on 19 Feb 2014

Glad to read a few comments posted here with positive reaction to this new regulation. I'm just not sure as to the reasons why there are still many people think this new regulation is a bad thing. One person even commented something to the fact that this regulation is as good as the "North Korean prison camp."
Posted by Alamar on 20 Feb 2014

Extreme policies like this, and the extreme views expressed here, do nothing to help elephants, and are probably a threat to U.S. citizens' individual liberty and due process rights. Is the U.S. government going to run around grabbing ivory-handled knives and personal items with ivory inlays? How would that be handled by a big bureaucracy? Do citizens have recourse once crusading bureaucrats steal their personal property? Why should a free citizen have to do anything to prove that what is theirs, is theirs? Shouldn't the government have the burden of proof? This is nuts. Regulated hunting has created incentives for Africans to value their animals as more than just wild meat. Incomes from licensed hunters pay for conservation of many species and entire ecosystems. Humans wear dead animal skins as shoes, jackets, belts, gloves. Why not animal teeth, if they are accounted for? This witch hunt mentality will backfire. And it's bizarre. All these people looking for their next cause.
Posted by Josh in PA, USA on 23 Feb 2014

It is not a good idea to make a criminal out of an ordinary American citizen for owning pre-ban ivory. I have been collecting my entire life and plan to sell my tusks at some point. jpmickanis@aol.com
Posted by John Patrick Mickanis on 11 Mar 2014

To the commenter who has been collecting ivory his entire life, he should know that, even pre-ban, an elephant was slaughtered for that tusk. This is not ethical, and I'm shocked that he is not ashamed of himself. Ivory is a bad investment. The species has been nearly poached out because of greed, and now ivory needs to be banned. I hope that collection of tusks is never sold and any money spent on them is lost, because ivory holds no real value unless it is attached to an elephant.
Posted by Michael Paredes on 15 Mar 2014

Whether the ban of the sale of ivory will benefit elephant populations or not, an example of the far-reaching difficulties such sweeping mandates can have is evident in the case of vintage guitars. For much of the first half of the 20th century many of the better known producers of acoustic guitars used ivory for various functional pieces of their instruments. These pieces were far from ornamental and, in fact, contributed to the longevity and playability of many instruments widely considered to have been crucial in the evolution of modern popular music. A ban like this could potentially impact the livelihoods of those who have gone to great lengths to preserve and manage a large and important slice of American culture. While some may categorize this type of complaint as trivial when compared to the plight of the elephants, it is a specific example of an unforseen consequence of such a mandate. It then becomes easy to imagine how many other niche applications of ivory could be affected by this ban. With something like vintage guitars, the idea of altering every early Martin acoustic to satisfy this ban seems heinous, though that would seem to be the only way to satisfy proponents of such legislation.
Posted by H.B. Quinn on 18 Mar 2014

"Ban all ivory." "Destroy all ivory." Do you realize there are many thousands of great works of art, antiques, musical instruments (including most all pianos more than 30 years old) that contain ivory — sometimes just slivers of it?

If that is your goal you may as well start your protests at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Posted by Nelson Watson on 21 Mar 2014

Thanks for writing this article. I was banned from several US based elephant conservation sites for trying to get them to recognize the problem they attribute to the Chinese.

The number of excuses from Americans pretending it wasn't an American problem was huge. The complaints rolled in until I was removed for not concentrating on China and suggesting there was bigotry at work in the concentration on others rather than Americans themselves.
Posted by jack frost on 10 Apr 2014

Thank you very kindly for the interesting article!

Could you please tell where within the IFAW that you found the following information?

"And the figures obtained by IFAW indicate that more elephants are legally killed by U.S. hunters than are poached in some African countries."

This would be extremely helpful.

Thank you!

Posted by Phillip on 20 Feb 2015

The law needs to be updated to ban all Ivory old and
new to prevent the murder of these magnificant
mammals. A task force from a combination of
governments and environmental groups should
investigate where the demand is most pre eland in
the United States and elsewhere. Who? Why? Is it
cultural? Is it the Asian population in NYC and
Washington and San Franscisco? It should be on
radio shows and the news and a reward for
information should exceed the value of the Ivory.
It is very sad that we have allowed it to get this far.
We are better than this. Or are we?
Posted by Tracy Platero on 25 Apr 2016


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Adam Welz is a South African writer, photographer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. His work includes an award-winning film about eccentric birders in New York City and exposés of environmental crime throughout southern Africa. Welz is a member of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective. Previously for Yale Environment 360, he explored South Africa's renewable energy outlook and whether militarization is an effective tool against poaching.



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