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U.K. ban relegates legal ivory trade to ‘a thing of the past’

  • The United Kingdom says it will ban, with a few exceptions, the sale of all ivory in the country.
  • Conservation groups have welcomed the move and pointed out that poaching to fuel the global ivory trade leads to the deaths of 55 elephants a day, or around 20,000 per year.
  • The closure of domestic markets in the U.K., along with similar moves in China, Hong Kong and the U.S., will close the loopholes that allow illegal traders to launder their illicitly acquired ivory, proponents of the measure say.

The government of the United Kingdom announced today that it plans to introduce a stringent ban on the trade of ivory.

“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,” Environment Secretary Michael Gove said in a statement. “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.”

An investigation in 2017 revealed that the U.K. was the largest exporter of legal ivory, with much of it destined for Asian markets. But soon, aside from a few exceptions based on the size and the age of specific products, it will no longer be legal to buy or sell ivory in the U.K., according to language drafted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Conservation groups applauded this step, which many see as crucial in the battle to stem the precipitous decline in African elephant populations.

African elephants at a watering hole in Tanzania. Photo by John C. Cannon.

Cristián Samper, CEO of the U.S.-based NGO Wildlife Conservation Society, said WCS was eager to see the U.K. parliament codify the ban into law, and added that the ban was part of a worldwide trend as governments come to grips with their countries’ role in the ivory trade.

“The world has seen a shift toward restricting ivory sales, with major markets including Mainland China, Hong Kong and the U.S. announcing bans in recent years,” Samper said in a statement from WCS.

China halted the trade of ivory at the start of this year, and the United States revised its Endangered Species Act to restrict ivory sales in 2016. But conservation groups say the U.K. will soon have one of the “strongest” bans in existence.

The country’s government invited comments from the public on the proposal to close the ivory market beginning in October 2017. The effort attracted more than 70,000 responses, of which 88 percent were in favor of the ban. Many of the respondents who opposed the ban said they were concerned that the loss of a legal market would increase the value of ivory and, with it, the incentive to kill elephants.

Around 20,000 elephants are killed for their ivory tusks every year. Photo by John C. Cannon.

Based on the input from the consultation period, the government then fleshed out a set of exceptions to the ban. These exemptions allow the sale of ivory-containing items that are small, come from tusks harvested decades ago, or contain small proportions of ivory, as well as musical instruments. Accredited museums will also get some leeway in how they deal with ivory.

“The narrowly defined exemptions are pragmatic,” said Charlie Mayhew, the CEO of Tusk Trust, in the government’s statement. “The ban will ensure there is no value for modern day ivory and the tusks of recently poached elephants cannot enter the UK market.”

Though elephant poaching appears to be declining, it remains a significant threat to elephant numbers, along with habitat loss.

“Around 55 African elephants are killed for their ivory a day, their tusks turned into carvings and trinkets,” said Tanya Steele, who heads the NGO WWF in the U.K., in the statement from the government. “This ban makes the UK a global leader in tackling this bloody trade.”

Africa’s elephants — the savanna species (Loxodonta africana) and the smaller forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), whose numbers dropped by two-thirds between 2002 and 2013 — have borne the brunt of the impact from ivory-seeking poachers. Their tusks are larger, and unlike Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), both sexes grow them. However, even the world’s smallest Asian elephants aren’t beyond the grasp of poaching’s tentacles. In late 2017, biologists found a bull with its face hacked off in northern Borneo.

A carved ivory tusk in the Brooklyn Museum. Photo source: Brooklyn Museum [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The IUCN currently lists African elephants as vulnerable and Asian elephants as endangered.

“To save elephants, we must stop the killing on the ground, and stop the trafficking of and demand for ivory,” WCS’s Samper said. “Closing all domestic ivory markets globally must be our goal.”

Conservation organizations argue that legal markets give illegal traders an outlet to sell their wares, in effect laundering ivory that may have come from a poached elephant. And doing away with the domestic trade will ultimately make the idea of having ivory unacceptable, as it has for other wildlife products, said Matthew Hatchwell, the director of conservation at the Zoological Society of London.

“No one in the UK today would dream of wearing a tiger-skin coat,” Hatchwell said in the government’s statement. “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.”

The ban “removes any hiding place” for the illicit ivory trade, said John Stephenson, CEO of Stop Ivory, in the statement. “Ivory belongs on an elephant and when the buying stops the killing will stop.”

An elephant in Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. Photo by John C. Cannon.

Banner image of an elephant by John C. Cannon.

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