With the passing of the 2018 Ivory Act, the United Kingdom (UK) has banned ivory sales to help protect elephants for future generations. UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove confirmed robust measures that will be brought into force through primary legislation and the ban will cover ivory items of all ages – not only those produced after a certain date. The maximum available penalty for breaching the ban will be an unlimited fine or up to five years in jail.
Elephant poaching is at crisis levels, driven by the ivory trade. The number of elephants has declined by almost a third in the last decade and around 30,000 are slaughtered by poachers each year, with African savanna elephant numbers plummeting 30 percent between 2007 and 2014.
As profits become ever greater, the illegal wildlife trade has become a transnational organised enterprise, estimated to be worth up to £17 billion a year. The further decline of elephants would also deprive some of the poorest countries in the world of their valuable natural capital, affecting economic growth and sustainable development.
While much of the demand for ivory comes from Asia, Europe also has a large market. A ban on the commercial trade in ivory across international borders has been in effect since 1990, but many countries continue to allow the domestic buying and selling of ivory. While it’s unclear how much legal ivory has been bought and sold within European Union borders in recent years, about 7.6 tons of legal ivory have been exported from the European Union (EU) since 2003, according to the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). The UK exports more legal ivory than any other country in the world, according to an EIA analysis.
In August 2017 when the EIA published this analysis, Executive Director Mary Rice said, “UK ivory exports are stimulating consumer demand globally, especially in Hong Kong and China, two of the world’s largest markets for both legal and illegal ivory. As well as fueling demand for ivory, the UK’s legal trade provides opportunities for the laundering of illegal ivory, both within the country and internationally.” China shut down its legal ivory market on December 31, 2017, and Hong Kong announced an end to its market in 2021.
The UK Ban
Conservation organizations have been working for several years to get an ivory ban approved in the UK. When this proposal was put up for consultation by the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, it received more than 70,000 responses, with more than 88 percent in favor of the ban.
The UK’s ivory ban, which still needs to be signed into law, applies to all ivory except items produced before 1947 with less than 10 percent ivory by volume, musical instruments made before 1975 with less than 20 percent ivory, rare antiques more than 100 years old (which must be assessed by a specialist first), and certain items traded between accredited museums. These exceptions are stricter than the United States’ (U.S.) ivory ban, which went into place in 2016 after a landmark joint announcement between the U.S. and China. The U.S. allows trade of ivory antiques more than a hundred years old and of items with up to 50 percent ivory, with a few other qualifying factors. By covering ivory items of all ages and adopting these narrow exemptions, the UK’s ban will be one of the toughest in the world. The US federal ban exempts all items older than 100 years as well as items with up to 50 percent ivory content. The Chinese ban exempts ivory “relics”, without setting a date before which these must have been produced.
Environment Secretary, Michael Gove said, “Ivory should never be seen as a commodity for financial gain or a status symbol, so we will introduce one of the world’s toughest bans on ivory sales to protect elephants for future generations. The ban on ivory sales we will bring into law will reaffirm the UK’s global leadership on this critical issue, demonstrating our belief that the abhorrent ivory trade should become a thing of the past.”
Conservationists are now urging the EU as a whole to address the ivory trade. They argue that a legal trade provides cover for smugglers and traffickers to “launder” poached ivory by giving it paperwork that makes it appear to have been obtained legally. At a recent European Environment Council, the UK called for EU member states to follow the Government’s lead and ban commercial trade in raw ivory – which is already banned in the UK – within the EU as soon as possible.
In October 2018, the UK hosted the fourth international conference on the illegal wildlife trade, bringing global leaders to London to tackle the strategic challenges of the trade. This followed the 2014 London conference on the illegal wildlife trade, and subsequent conferences in Botswana and Vietnam.
A ban on ivory sales in the UK would build on government work both at home and overseas to tackle poaching and the illegal ivory trade. The UK military is training African park rangers in proven poacher interception techniques in key African countries, and Border Force officers share their expertise in identifying smuggled ivory with counterparts worldwide to stop wildlife trafficking.
Response from Conservationists
The following statement is from Dr. Susan Lieberman, WCS Vice President for International Policy:
“WCS congratulates the Government of the United Kingdom on passing the 2018 Ivory Act, which is now one of the strongest laws in the world closing a domestic ivory market. We congratulate the UK on showing the world its commitment to stopping the illegal ivory trade – not by telling others what to do, but by taking action at home. The UK now joins the U.S., China, and other countries in heeding the call from the majority of African elephant range countries to putting an end – for good – to the global ivory trade. We call on the EU, Japan, and others that still allow domestic ivory sales, to close their markets as well—any open ivory market provides opportunities to launder illegal ivory. We know from our conservationists working on the front lines throughout Africa, and on anti-trafficking efforts across the globe, that the slaughter of elephants will continue as long as there are open ivory markets.”
The CEO of Tusk Trust, Charlie Mayhew MBE said:
“We are delighted that the Government has listened to our concerns and given the overwhelming public response to their consultation is now moving decisively to introduce tough legislation to ban the trade in ivory in the UK. The narrowly defined exemptions are pragmatic. The ban will ensure there is no value for modern day ivory and the tusks of recently poached elephants cannot enter the UK market. We welcome the fact that Ministers are sending such a clear message to the world that the illegal wildlife trade will not be tolerated and every effort will be made to halt the shocking decline in Africa’s elephant population in recent years.”
Tanya Steele Chief Executive at World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) said:
“Around 55 African elephants are killed for their ivory a day, their tusks turned into carvings and trinkets. This ban makes the UK a global leader in tackling this bloody trade and it’s something WWF has been fighting hard for. But if we want to stop the poaching of this majestic animal, we need global action. We hope the UK will continue to press countries where the biggest ivory markets are, most of which are in Asia, to shut down their trade too.”
ZSL Director of Conservation, Matthew Hatchwell, said:
“Legal domestic ivory markets are intrinsically linked to the illegal ivory trade that is driving the current poaching crisis. With almost 20,000 elephants poached in the last year, it is vital that countries take significant steps such as those outlined by the UK government today to close their markets and help make the trade in ivory a thing of the past. No one in the UK today would dream of wearing a tiger-skin coat. Thanks to this move, in a few years’ time we believe the same will be true for the trade in ivory.”
John Stephenson, CEO Stop Ivory said:
“This is a significant day for the future of elephants. The UK government has taken a momentous step. The proposed ban, with its narrow and clear exemptions, places the UK at the forefront of the international determination to halt the extermination of elephant populations by banning trade in ivory. The Secretary of State for DEFRA has shown clear leadership in demanding legislation whilst there is still time to secure a future for elephants in the wild. The end of the ivory trade in the UK removes any hiding place for the trade in illegal ivory, and sends a powerful message to the world that ivory will no longer be valued as a commodity. Ivory belongs on an elephant and when the buying stops the killing will stop.”