Close the U.S. Ivory Market for Good


By Cristián Samper and Susan Lieberman

Date Published
It’s been said that insanity is doing the same action over and over and expecting a different outcome. We have been mindful of that idea as we’ve followed the reactions from supporters of commercial ivory sales to restrictions recently imposed by President Obama at the suggestion of his Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, upon which we are privileged to serve.

The president’s boldest – and most controversial – decision was to prohibit all commercial imports and interstate commerce in elephant ivory, including antiques. Opponents suggest this unfairly targets owners of legal ivory and argue that the new rules will do nothing to protect elephants in Africa. To secure elephants and their habitats, argue critics (who say they support such a goal), only a legal ivory market will do.

In fact, we have lived with a legal ivory market for many years. It has enabled purveyors of illegal ivory (obtained from the slaughter of elephants for their tusks) to launder their goods, falsely claiming new ivory to be antique or at the very least purchased prior to a ban imposed on the international commercial ivory trade by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Antique ivory is virtually indistinguishable from fresh, particularly when carved or otherwise processed.

The convention’s restrictions succeeded for many years in reducing poaching and allowing elephant populations to begin to recover. However, we have more recently seen the rise of organized criminal networks involved in wildlife trafficking, sometimes working with armed rebels and others across Africa that seek to sustain their operations with precious “white gold.” The current wave of trafficking is both driven by and encourages corruption.

The criminal networks – and others – operating throughout the ivory trade chain are now responsible for the death of more than 35,000 African elephants per year, or about 96 each day. The global community, including many African elephant range countries and the Obama administration, recognizes that if we want a different outcome we have to try different actions.

The new National Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking provides guiding principles to all federal agencies to tackle this serious transnational crime and focuses on strengthening domestic and global enforcement, reducing demand for ivory and other endangered species products, and garnering international political will.

With the United States estimated to have one of the largest domestic commercial ivory markets after China, loopholes in current U.S. law not covered by the convention’s ban must be closed. How can we ask other countries to do their part to clamp down on this pernicious trade if we are not willing to do the same?

Some critics, including Godfrey Harris and Daniel Stiles writing in The New York Times, argue that instead of stricter moratoria on ivory sales, we should focus efforts on educating consumers in Asia and “more aggressive enforcement of anti-poaching efforts in Africa.”

But those are tactics already embraced by the conservation community and many governments. The Wildlife Conservation Society and other NGO partners are working actively on evidence-based efforts to reduce the purchase of ivory, rhino horn and other endangered species products, in China and Southeast Asia in particular. We are also collaborating closely with governments to promote strong enforcement along the trade chain, including effecting successful prosecutions and encouraging deterrent penalties. The U.S. National Strategy embraces all of these efforts and we are already beginning to see positive results. 

The Chinese public appears to be awakening to the horrors of the ivory trade as messages on Weibo (a social media site combining elements of both Facebook and Twitter), other media including newspapers and PSAs, and celebrities spread the word, and both China and the Hong Kong have destroyed or committed to destroying some or all of their stockpiles of seized ivory. A growing number of other governments around the world are destroying stockpiles too and using the occasion to highlight the need to address trafficking in ivory seriously.

Some musicians and gun owners question the efficacy of tighter rules recently outlined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming they unfairly restrict their ability to travel with items containing trace amounts of ivory. But there is nothing in the administration’s proposed new ivory rules that will prevent people from traveling within the U.S. with their items. Only sales will be prohibited.

Now is not the time to focus on minutia or to be complacent. The U.S. must show leadership and the administration’s new ivory policy and bold National Wildlife Trafficking Strategy are evidence of just such leadership. The European Union, China and others are all increasing their attention on this critical issue, and evaluating their strategies to stop the scourge of illegal wildlife trade and treat it as a serious transnational crime.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora Standing Committee meets in July to evaluate progress on stopping elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade. We are hopeful that the United States, which has a seat on that committee, will be able to attend with its head held high and announce that it has taken bold action to close U.S. domestic markets to ivory trade.