Banning ivory: The why and the how


Judith McHale and David J. Hayes, The Hill

Date Published
A shocking new peer-reviewed study documented that 100,000 elephants were killed in Africa for their ivory from 2010 to 2012, and that a burgeoning illegal ivory market has continued to feed high, unsustainable rates of killing into 2013 and 2014.  Africa’s forest elephants are being wiped out, and the continued viability of the continent-wide population is now in doubt.
The potential extinction risk of one of the world’s most iconic species demands our attention, regardless of its context.  But there is more.  As the presidents of Tanzania, Gabon, Namibia and Togo candidly confirmed at the recent U.S.-Africa Summit, the international criminal networks that are orchestrating the killing, gathering, transporting and selling of ivory other wildlife parts are corrupting officials in their governments and funding terrorist organizations.  National security also is at stake. 
What can be done to stop the killings?  Clearly, as the administration has recognized, a comprehensive strategy that addresses the entire supply chain is needed.  It must begin in Africa by stemming the killings and working with local communities to protect their wildlife.  But so long as there is a strong market pull for illegal ivory in Asia, Europe and the U.S., criminal syndicates will find a way for the killings to continue. 
Addressing the demand side of the elephant crisis means stigmatizing new demand for ivory and enforcing the international ban on ivory trading.  Only a ban on commercial trade in ivory can protect elephants when they are on the razor’s edge. This is why the U.S. Congress responded to a previous spike of elephant killings in the 1980s by slapping an indefinite moratorium ? effectively, a ban ? on the import of ivory under African Elephant Conservation Act of 1989.  The international community followed suit in 1990, enacting a ban on the commercial import and export of ivory and ivory products under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  These actions cooled off the ivory market and enabled elephant populations to rebound. 
Tragically, however, enforcement attention on the ivory ban has faded over time. Meanwhile, demand for ivory has sharply increased over the past five years — particularly from consumers in newly wealthy Asian nations.  Traffickers took advantage of the combination of market confusion and lax enforcement to meet the new demand, killing more than 100,000 elephants in the process.
The recent breakdown in the effectiveness of the ban on the commercial ivory trade prompted the president to call on his administration to revisit and reinvigorate ban.  It also is why some leading states, including New York and New Jersey, are passing their own bans on trade in ivory.
The administration’s renewed commitment to the ivory ban has raised hackles in some quarters as U.S. regulatory authorities have increased scrutiny on ivory imports and on individuals and retailers who are purporting to sell legal ivory.  None of the concerns undermine the imperative to end commercial trade in ivory.  They reflect understandable anxieties that can be addressed by new rules that the Administration is preparing to release.   
By way of example, sensible rules can ensure that the existing ban on importing ivory does not inhibit the easy cross-border transport of older musical instruments that contain small amounts of ivory for performances, or museum collections for exhibition.  Likewise, individuals who own very old ivory pieces that may be exempt under the Endangered Species Act should have an avenue to establish their authenticity as “antiques,” perhaps through third party experts, working under government-approved guidelines.  Finally, with questions being raised around older items that contain a very small, incidental amount of ivory, query whether the federal government should follow the lead of New York and New Jersey, whose strong new bans do not extend to those items.  
By taking these types of sensible approaches, we can cut out the background noise, reinforce and reinvigorate the commercial ban on ivory, and ensure that our limited governmental resources are focused on the sophisticated traffickers who are pushing illegal ivory into commerce.   At the same time, we need to recruit leading retailers, internet search engines and trading platforms, banks, and transportation providers to help disrupt ivory supply chains and market opportunities here in the U.S., and abroad.  And we need academic and marketing experts to help us change consumer behavior and reduce the demand for ivory and other wildlife parts. 
By taking strong actions at home to close down illegal ivory markets, we can – and should — insist that other nations do the same.  Indeed, if other countries fail to enforce the international ban on commercial trade in ivory and allow illegal domestic ivory markets to thrive, we should not hesitate to move against them with trade sanctions under U.S. and international law.  There is no time to waste. 
McHale and Hayes are the chair and vice-chair of the President’s Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking.