One ton of ivory is set to be crushed in New York City's Times Square this Friday (June 19) to help raise awareness about the dire straits facing Africa’s elephants due to recent poaching. This will be the second such high profile event in the U.S., following the destruction in November 2013 of six tons of confiscated ivory figurines, jewelry and raw tusks at the National Wildlife Property Repository near Denver.
The ivory trade appears to be growing around the world, and the Times Square crush throws the spotlight on a flurry of recent moves on the federal and state levels to eliminate the activity in the U.S. The Obama administration announced its intention in February 2014 to ban virtually all ivory sales in the U.S. The regulation to implement this is currently being drafted and will be offered for public comment this summer, according to Edward Grace, deputy assistant director of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Several states are not waiting for federal action. Last year New York State and New Jersey enacted their own laws against selling ivory within state borders. And the California State Assembly passed an ivory ban earlier this month, which now goes to the state’s senate. Iris Ho, Wildlife Program manager for Humane Society International, reports that similar legislation is pending in Oregon, Michigan, Connecticut, Massachusetts and several other states. “We’re encouraged by these bipartisan efforts to shut down the ivory trade,” Ho says. “Polling in Oregon, New York and California shows that the public is overwhelmingly behind these measures.”
There is also a bill before the U.S. Senate, introduced by California Democrat Diane Feinstein, to make wildlife trafficking a more serious crime, on a par with drug trafficking and money laundering, and there is legislation sponsored by California Republican congressman Ed Royce to increase assistance to nations in Africa and beyond in their fight against the illicit wildlife trade.
Despite being banned by the multilateral CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) treaty in 1989, global traffic in ivory appears to have doubled since 2007. An estimated 33,000 elephants are killed each year to feed the escalating demand for ivory, which has almost tripled in price during the past four years.
Raw ivory now sells for $2,100 per kilogram in China, where carved objects are status symbols coveted by members of the growing middle class; 70 percent of all illegal ivory ends up there, according to The New York Times, with significant amounts also going to nations like Thailand and Vietnam.
But the U.S. is also a large market. A 2008 investigation conducted by Care for the Wild International, a U.K.-based conservation group, found 600 retail locations selling it in major U.S. cities as well as dozens of Web sites, where it can be purchased.
Recently, law enforcement has tightened the screws with several high profile arrests. Ivory is rarely displayed openly in shops or on the Internet. But convictions for ivory trafficking are hard to come by because prosecutors need to prove that the objects being sold are not “antique,” and that the seller knew that. “The problem that you run into if you ask some of the auction houses and retail outlets, ‘When did you get this ivory?’—the first thing that a lot of people tell you is that it is over 100 years old or it’s pre-ban, without offering any evidence,” Grace said in a phone interview.
When the new regulations go into effect, such claims will have to be backed up by a paper trail demonstrating that an item is a bona fide antique brought into the country prior to 1989. This provision has some owners of antiques and musical instruments, like pianos with ivory keys, worried that their treasures may soon become worthless. “It’s a government regulation that sweeps out the good with the bad,” Clinton Howell, president of the Art and Antique Dealers League of America said in a phone interview with Scientific American. “To just abandon that artistic heritage, to throw it away is very sad.” Howell wants to see professional vetting, in which art experts certify that a piece is old, based on stylistic and physical characteristics. Conservation groups counter that forgers are skilled at making ivory “look old,” and that any system which allows some ivory items to be sold as antiques will serve as a cover for the illegal market.
It’s not likely that the soon-to-be-finalized federal regulations, which will undoubtedly include certain exemptions and exceptions, will make either side in this controversy entirely happy. Meanwhile in Africa time is running out. An estimated three quarters of local elephant populations are in decline or close to collapse.