Hong Kong Customs displays 82.5kg of rhino horns from South Africa and destined for Malaysia. Photo: ISD

Bringing the Curtain Down on U.S. Ivory

By Amy Zets, EIA Endangered Species Policy Analyst and Dan Hubbell, EIA Assistant Policy Analyst

Today is World Elephant Day, and we at EIA are celebrating U.S. leadership to combat the elephant poaching epidemic and the steps the United States is taking to ensure our own market doesn’t contribute to the decline of elephants. The timing is critical and the stakes could not be higher—the world’s largest ivory markets need to be shut down to protect elephants.

On July 25th during his trip to Kenya, President Obama announced the release of a proposed rule to mostly ban the domestic trade of ivory in the United States. After months of gaining input from stakeholders, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published the proposed rule on July 29th, which is open for comment for 60 days. The proposed regulations, while not perfect, are a major step forward for the world’s elephants, and another signal to the world that it is time to shut down the corrupt trade in ivory.

Ivory is worth thousands of dollars per kilo in some markets, but the true cost of an ivory statuette or an inlaid gun grip has been borne out in Africa’s savannahs and forests. The declines are shocking: Central Africa’s endangered forest elephant population dropped by 65 percent from 2002 to 2013; elephant numbers in East Africa’s Tanzania dropped by 60 percent to 43,000 from 109,000 in 2009; and Mozambique’s population has fallen by more than half since 2009, down to just over 10,000. Not only is wildlife trafficking devastating for the world’s wildlife, ivory is a cornerstone of a black market trade in wildlife products worth an estimated $8 to $10 billion each year, with much of the profits from these laundered tusks lining the pockets organized criminal gangs and fueling terrorist networks.

The United States remains a major consumer of ivory and our domestic market has provided cover for poachers looking to launder poached and smuggled products. For example, a study in 2008 revealed that approximately one-third of ivory in the United States could be illegal and a 2014 survey of ivory markets in Los Angeles and San Francisco found that more than half of the ivory on display was likely from illegal sources. Online markets host large numbers of dubious ivory items. Determining legal from illegal ivory is extremely difficult, thus so is enforcement.

The proposed rule to the African elephant rule under section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act will clamp down on the trade in illegal ivory trinkets by banning most interstate commerce and further restricting commercial exports, with some exceptions including for defined antiques and certain manufactured items containing de minimis quantities of ivory . While meant to accommodate various stakeholders, such as musicians wanting to transfer musical instruments containing ivory, permitted exceptions remain aslOOK small loopholes that can be avenues to launder illegal ivory. As a “near-complete” ban, the proposed rule could use some strengthening to make it as complete as possible.

While EIA and colleagues are pushing for the rule to be strengthened, others are pushing for looser regulations, or more loopholes. There is the possibility that the rule could be weakened by special interest groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has erroneously cast this issue as a matter of gun rights.

EIA will be submitting comments on the proposed rule and encourages others to weigh in, letting FWS know how important and appreciated strong U.S. regulations are to counter the illegal ivory trade, reduce the demand for ivory, and devalue ivory as a commodity. EIA applauds the United States for its leadership and urges all other nations, especially China, Japan, and Thailand, to follow the Unites States’ lead and set firm timelines to close their own domestic ivory markets.