The White House issued the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking in February, a publication derived from the work done by the Task Force. The strategy adopts a near universal ban on the commercial sale of elephant ivory objects, including old ivory once legitimately purchased and legally imported. It restricts all commercial exports except for antiques 100+ years old, certain noncommercial objects, and items permitted under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ban specifically prohibits commercial imports of African elephant ivory, including antiques. It halts the interstate and intrastate trade of ivory (except antiques) "unless the seller can demonstrate an item was lawfully imported prior to 1990 for African elephants and 1975 for Asian elephants, or under an exemption document." The ban is hoped to to combat what the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) says is a global illegal ivory trade that "has more than doubled since 2007." DOI reports, "It is estimated that poachers, working with criminal syndicates, systematically killed as many as 35,000 elephants in 2012."
Proponents of the ban entirely disagree, saying that America needs stringent rules because it has the second largest ivory marketplace in the world, a statistic tendered by a comprehensive United Nations Environment Program report published last year titled Elephants in the Dust. President and CEO of the Humane Society of the U.S., Wayne Pacelle, explains the trade volume and makes a case for the ban in his A Humane Nation blog:
But the sad truth is that the U.S. is the second largest ivory marketplace after China, partly because it’s legal to trade in “antique” ivory more than 100 years old, ivory imported to the U.S. before Asian and African elephants received protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (1975 and 1990, respectively), or non-elephant ivory such as mammoth ivory. Traffickers claim that ivory from recently poached elephants is antique, and they dye it to make it look old and forge documents to substantiate their claim... The truth is that there is no way for enforcement officers or the public to distinguish old from new ivory, or which species worked ivory comes from. It all adds up to a robust legal and illegal trade of ivory in the U.S.
Personal property issues likely to arise as a result of the moratorium on pre-existing elephant ivory goods include potential problems for individuals, businesses, and museums. A few illustrations:
- A Cold War Army veteran who served in the Horn of Africa and who lawfully brought home ivory vases to the U.S. after purchasing then from a local craftsman may find, upon his death, that the county probate court has denied the executor's ability to auction the items at an estate sale, thereby reducing the anticipated value of the former soldier's estate.
- A family who had their grand piano restored in 1992 with pre-ban ivory keys may be prohibited from selling their $20,000 instrument unless they either can produce decades-old paperwork that likely would have been in the hands of the piano restorer (who may be retired or out of business now that 22 years have passed) or can retrofit the keyboard with plastic keys at a cost (assuming that a piano restorer would want to conduct this business in the wake of the new ban).
- An American museum may be restricted from importing, accessioning, and conserving a properly provenance hand-crafted Byzantine ivory triptych, once used for private religious devotion in the 10th century.
- An American furniture seller of French art deco tables from the 1920’s through 1940’s who stores her inventory in Europe may suffer business losses and breach existing contracts because she cannot ship her stocks to the U.S.
- A divorcing couple and their family court judge may find themselves hamstrung as they attempt to tally marital assets that can no longer be considered “assets” because the couple's original wedding gifts of non-antique pre-ban jewelry, billiard balls, chess pieces, ivory-handled knives, and natsukes now have no resale value.
With regard to African elephant ivory, the existing rules in the U.S. have generally been that:
- It is illegal to own, sell, or export crafted ivory imported into the U.S. after 1989 and which was less than 100 years old when the crafted ivory came across the American border.
- It is illegal to own, sell, or export uncrafted ivory that was imported into the U.S. after 1989. The age of the ivory does not matter.
- It is legal to own, sell, or export crafted or uncrafted ivory that was imported into the U.S. before 1989.
The global ban agreed in 1989 was successful in stemming a previous killing spree. Over time, however, exceptions have eviscerated the international ban and illegal ivory is now routinely bought and sold under one or more loopholes, providing cover for illegal traffickers. These need to be closed and sanctions imposed on countries that continue to trade in ivory products.
[UPDATE May 23, 2014: Administration officials loosened the ivory ban a little, helping museums. See here.]
Photo credits: Dimitri C. and Enrico Corno