The Destruction of Ivory Poaching and the Illegal Wildlife Trade: Part 5

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
— Mahatma Gandhi

United Kingdom

As profits become ever greater, the illegal wildlife trade has become a transnational organised enterprise, With the passing of the 2018 Ivory Act, the British government confirmed the United Kingdom’s (UK) ban on 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.

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.

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.

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. 

China and Hong Kong

An international ivory trade ban went into effect in 1990, but China continued to allow, and in some cases promoted, ivory sales within its borders. Its legal ivory supply came primarily from a one-time sale of ivory from a handful of African countries in 2008, but this legal domestic market provided the opportunity for traffickers to slip illegally obtained ivory into China’s legal supply.

China is widely believed to be the world’s largest consumer of ivory, both legal and illegal, in demand for intricate carvings, trinkets, chopsticks, and other items. Ivory is an industry that has been driven largely by China’s booming middle class, in which some people covet ivory as a status symbol. Wildlife conservation groups say that Asia, and China in particular, are key for the industry’s existence and has largely contributed to the slaughter of approximately 30,000 African elephants each year.

Following a 2014 joint pledge with the United States to ban domestic trade of ivory, all of China’s government-licensed carving factories and ivory retailers closed on December 31, 2017. China and the U.S. had both agreed to “near-complete” ivory bans, which prohibit the buying and selling of all but a limited number of antiques and a few other items. The U.S.’s ivory ban went into effect in June 2016. In a statement at the time, the Humane Society of the United States said this was the first time that the presidents of the two countries had made a specific, shared commitment to protect wildlife.

The Chinese government's ban on its domestic ivory trade sends a message to the general public in China that the life of elephants is more important than the ivory carving culture,” said Gao Yufang, a Ph.D. student in conservation biology and cultural anthropology at Yale University and a National Geographic Explorer. “It is difficult to predict to what extent China's ivory ban can reduce elephant poaching in Africa because many factors are at play,” Mr. Yufang said to National Geographic, “But it has been observed that in China prices of ivory products have dropped considerably, and the market is already shrinking.”

Regarding experts’ belief that the key to making the ban successful is enforcement and education, Mr. Yufang said, “Law enforcement in China tends to be hindered by poor coordination between different agencies, unclear authorization and accountability, and a lack of capable personnel on the ground.” In Chinese the word for ivory is xiangya, meaning “elephant tooth,” which has led many to believe erroneously that ivory can be taken from an elephant without inflicting harm.

China’s internal ivory control systems have failed. The nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare did polling in 2007 in China that found that 70 percent of respondents didn’t realize an elephant had to be killed to take its ivory. A recent survey by the World Wildlife Fund and the wildlife trade monitoring organization TRAFFIC, however, found that only 19 percent of people surveyed knew about the ban. Once they were told of the ban, 86 percent of those surveyed said they supported it. In a separate poll surveyed by National Geographic Society and GlobeScan, while 79 percent of Chinese people said they’d support a total ban on ivory, the result also found that 36 percent of those surveyed in China wanted to buy ivory and could afford it, while another 20 percent wanted to buy it but couldn’t afford it.

Hong Kong announced an end to its market in 2021. The Chief Executive in Council has approved a three-step plan to phase out Hong Kong’s ivory trade where the first is to immediately ban the import and re-export of all elephant hunting trophies and any remaining post-Convention ivory items. Step two is to ban the import and re-export of pre-Convention ivory, and to subject those in the local market to licensing control three months after the step one ban. It will become an offence to possess pre-Convention ivory for commercial purposes without a Licence to Possess. The final step is to ban the possession of all ivory for commercial purposes. It will take effect on December 31, 2021, but the government said the measures to be implemented in steps two and three will not be applicable to antique ivory.

Hong Kong’s government said that, with a five-year grace period, “it is unlikely that the phasing out of the local ivory trade will cause much impact” as many ivory traders have already undergone business transformations. The government said it will also increase the penalties under the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance through the same legislative exercise. 

United States

As part of the 2014 joint pledge between the Obama administration and China, new restrictions on the ivory trade were designed to create "a near complete ban" on the commercial sale of African elephant ivory in the U.S. The ivory ban went into effect in June 2016.

There was already a near-total ban in the United States on commercial ivory, and new restrictions put in place saw the ban of commercial imports of African elephant ivory, including antiques, and restrictions that limited the number and types of hunting trophies that could be brought into the country. Individual states enacted or proposed bills to further restrict ivory sales.

American rules governing international and domestic trade in elephant ivory are complex, complicated by unequal enforcement over the years. The new rules are designed to force people with ivory to prove how and when an item was imported. Legitimate imports of, say, antique ivory for personal use or for use in approved musical instruments will have to come through designated "antique" ports. Or ivory will have to be designated for scientific or law enforcement purposes. The new rules shift the burden of proof for whether ivory is legal from the government to an ivory holder, whereas most wildlife criminals in the U.S. benefit from the government's having to prove that endangered wildlife in their possession was smuggled.

Sport hunters of African elephants are also restricted on what they can bring back to the U.S. Before the new rules, big-game hunters could use loopholes in African and U.S. laws to bring back large numbers of "culled" elephant heads, including ivory. Now, hunters will be limited to importing two dead elephants a year.

In 2017, the Trump administration appeared to reverse the restrictions on bringing back legally-hunted elephant trophies and the import of ivory from Zimbabwe and Zambia. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson said the move would allow the two African countries to include US sport hunting as part of their management plans for the elephants and allow them to put “much-needed revenue back into conservation.” This seemed to go against the drop in the elephant population, of which elephants are listed in the US Endangered Species Act, which requires the US government to protect endangered species in other countries.

However, the Trump administration immediately announced that it would place a “hold” on the Fish and Wildlife Service reversal of the ban, pending further review and President Donald Trump tweeted: “Big-game trophy decision will be announced next week but will be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of Elephants or any other animal."

I didn’t want elephants killed and stuffed and have the tusks brought back into this [country]. And people can talk all they want about preservation and all other things that they’re saying,” President Trump told British broadcaster Piers Morgan, referring to the argument proffered by his own Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, and others that fees paid by big-game hunters could help fund conservation programs. “In that case, the money was going to a government that was probably taking the money, OK?” In reference to the agency’s decision, he added, “That was done by a very high-level government person. As soon as I heard about it, I turned it around.

President Trump’s position ultimately lost in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in December 2017 ruled in a case brought by the National Rifle Association and Safari Club International that the Obama-era regulations had been improperly implemented.