Thousands of ivory artefacts are bought and sold across Australia and New Zealand, according to a new investigation by the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Ivory has soared in global value in the past decade, largely due to a growing middle class in Asian countries, where ivory products are prized as status symbols.
Leonard Joel, Lawsons, Bargain Hunt Auctions and Vickers and Hoad were among 17 Australian auction houses surveyed between October 2014 and June 2015, a period in which more than 1000 lots containing ivory valued between $10 and $70,000 were investigated.
“Once you put an economic value on ivory, it tells criminal poachers to continue to exploit animals:” Rebecca Keeble, IFAW.
The lots contained around 2409 items; including carvings and figures, jewellery, decorative objects and raw and carved tusks.
There are no laws banning domestic trade in Australia but under international rules, no elephant specimens can be imported for personal or commercial uses, except for scientific research or under a certificate proving the specimen predates 1975.
Rebecca Keeble, senior policy and campaigns officer for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said compliance with the rules was extremely low.
“Our investigation found only 8 per cent of sale items had the correct provenance documentation,” she said.
“It is almost impossible to determine if ivory is pre-1975, by sight alone. And in some cases, illegal ivory is deliberately marked, cracked or stained, to appear older.”
Among the Australian auction houses investigated, Leonard Joel had the highest number of ivory lots for sale at 300, followed by Lawsons, with 188 lots, and David Barsby, with 156.
Decorative ivory tusks on an online auction catalogue.
The highest price achieved at an auction in the period was $30,000, for a pair of tusks sold by Vickers and Hoad.
“What was most significant was that 78 per cent of those items were purchased … so the market is there,” Ms Keeble said. Her organisation is calling for an end to commercial trade.
“Once you put an economic value on ivory, it tells criminal poachers to continue to exploit animals.”
According to IFAW, one African elephant is killed every 15 minutes, while fewer than 30,000 rhinos are estimated to be alive today.
At Bargain Hunt Auctions in Sydney’s north-west, owner Mark Hunt has been met by vendors attempting to sell elephant tusks as recently as two weeks ago.
“We see products coming in on a weekly basis. About a year ago we were offered $1.5 million worth of ivory in a deceased estate house clearance, there were bathtubs literally full of four-foot-long tusks.”
Common ivory products include carvings and figures, jewellery, decorative objects and raw and carved tusks.
Mr Owens said he decided to stop selling whole ivory carvings and products around five years ago, however he does sell goods with “extremely small” ivory components.
“For many years we sold ivory carvings and we did the wrong thing. People aren’t breaking the law by selling it, but it is a grey area which needs stricter legislation.”
International trade of more than 35,000 endangered species, including elephants and rhinos, is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), of which there are 183 member countries.
Fairfax Media is not suggesting that any of the auction houses named have traded illegal ivory products.
Owner and director of Vickers and Hoad Colin Vickers said that the value of ivory in Australia had dropped 50 per cent in the last five years proved demand was declining.
He was critical of the IFAW report, arguing that the fund was “trying to blame someone for what was happening in Africa”.
“The law says we have a statutory declaration that we give the vendor to sign, telling us how they acquired the piece. We don’t take anything unless someone is willing to sign that,” he said.
Mr Vickers has proposed a scheme in which a vendor pays a resale royalty for any legal ivory products sold, to be donated towards elephant conservation.
At Raffan, Kelaher and Thomas auctions, if an item’s authenticity cannot be verified, it is not accepted.
“But you can’t stop all ivory,” said specialist Rosemary Nunes-Silva. “A lot of ivory tells the history and customs of people. These are exquisite items that are passed on as a salute to human nature, ingenuity and art practice.”
During the investigation period, Lawsons (Sydney) listed a pair of black rhinoceros horns (with provenance documentation), which were subsequently withdrawn from sale, following public pressure.