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It’s ivory, delicately carved into a three-inch elephant and mounted on a little wooden platform. It sits next to a short elephant tusk.
“These were seized from 888 Auctions,” he says.
Coote is regional director of Environment Canada’s Wildlife Enforcement Directorate, the government body that polices the trade of endangered and threatened species.
His team’s “evidence room,” in a non-descript government building in Burlington, Ont., is the final resting place for hundreds of trophies, tchotchkes and fashion mistakes imported or exported illegally and confiscated by the government.
888 Auctions, a Richmond Hill-based seller of antiques, pleaded guilty on Nov. 14 to exporting the carved elephant, a small elephant tusk, and a leather case made from python skin.
The company and its director, Dong Heon Kim, were fined a combined $12,500 and sentenced to two years’ probation. Their endangered animal goods ended up in Coote’s evidence room.
But there are still a staggering number of endangered animal products in basements, living rooms and vintage shops across the country and no shortage of Canadians with trinkets of ivory or antler or claw.
Because Canada’s laws on animal products only stretch back 42 years, these heirlooms and antiques are totally legal, though their owners don’t necessarily want them around.
Linda Bronfman’s mother gave her a few pieces of ivory Netsuke, carved Japanese figurines, about 45 years ago when Bronfman was a young girl.
Bronfman, a self-described animal advocate from Toronto, has since inherited some of her mother’s jewelry, including one or two ivory bangles.
“I don’t wear it, I don’t display (the ivory),” said Bronfman, who has campaigned against auction houses selling ivory.
“I’m waiting for the day when there is a Canadian ivory destruction and if the government would allow people to add their ivory to it I would add mine.”
Canada is one of over 180 countries that have signed on to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) — a global agreement that regulates the movement of at-risk plant and animal products.
CITES and the Canadian laws that enforce it here, are a complex web of prohibitions and exemptions. There are different rules for different categories, which are determined by species population and risk.
In the simplest terms, though, it’s illegal to bring endangered species specimens into Canada for commercial purposes. Even if you’re just buying a souvenir on holiday, you need a special permit.
Once an animal product has been brought into Canada illegally, it’s against the law to possess or sell it.
Unless, that is, you can prove the specimen was “taken from the wild” before July 3, 1975, when CITES came into use. Then it’s fair game.
So the ivory lapel pin you inherited from your grandfather or the rhino foot ashtray you bought in a Parkdale vintage store is probably legal. But not everyone who comes across these aged specimens wants them around, even if they are legal.
Ron Gray has run Canadian Ivory Inc. for about 10 years. The Vancouver-based company deals primarily in tusk and bone from Canadian Arctic animals — whales, narwhals, walruses.
Over the years, Gray has also purchased antique elephant ivory for resale, from people who want it out of their house.
“Typically what we find is it’s someone’s grandfather or great grandfather has gone off on a hunt to Africa or Asia and brought a trophy back,” Gray says.
“And it probably sat in their living room and then … this got relegated by inheritance to the next generation and ended up in the rec room.”
As society changed, Gray said, people have stopped wanting elephant trophies on display in their homes.
“Elephant ivory is a difficult one,” says Gray. “It has all kinds of emotional charge to it.”
But wildlife advocates argue buying and selling endangered animal antiques is problematic, even if it is technically legal.
“Knowing that a dead elephant is behind every piece of ivory—regardless of whether it’s antique or new—I personally wouldn’t want it,” says Rachel Kramer of TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring group created by the World Wildlife Fund and International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“Bona fide antiques may not be a problem in and of themselves,” Kramer adds. “But as long as there’s demand for ivory, criminals will try to launder new supply and pass it off as old (which) can be a real challenge for law enforcement.”
Bronfman says she would like to see the Canadian government destroy its stores of ivory, and ban the sale of ivory regardless of its age.
“It (would) spread the word: ‘Canada is putting its foot down on this… that there should be no market for this,” she says.
In June 2015, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers hauled a rock crusher into Times Square in New York City and fed into it over a ton of confiscated ivory.
It was a statement against the ivory trade in a jurisdiction, New York State, that has almost entirely banned the sale of any ivory product.
But American ivory destruction ceremonies are also an indication of how much illegal ivory U.S. authorities have to deal with, Baxter says.
“Just the sheer volume of traffic into the United States would completely dwarf that in Canada,” says Baxter. “It’s just demographics,”
Canadian enforcement officers will destroy more common products, like leather from at-risk animals and highly processed products like “medicinal” powders and balms made from animal bone or organs.
These items are incinerated by a private government contractor, under the supervision of an enforcement officer.
Most other specimens, particularly ones from highly endangered species, are kept in the evidence room, essentially in perpetuity.
They’re used for education purposes, says Coote, to teach law enforcement how to police illegal goods, or show the public what not to buy abroad.
And animal products with special cultural significance may be donated to a museum, Coote says.
Coote and Baxter speak of having respect for the specimen, protecting an endangered animal in death as in life.
“We try to find a good home for it,” says Coote.