The government has been praised for its Ivory Act 2018, effective from next month, making the purchase and sale of elephant tusks punishable by fines of up to £250,000 or up to five years in prison.
However, a loophole will allow trade in other elephant body parts to continue.
According to official data, the UK imported 325 non-ivory elephant parts over the past 10 years, including 173 skins, 84 feet, 47 ears and 21 tails.
Over three-quarters of the elephant parts imported were hunting trophies, with Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe being the most common countries of origin.
Dr Mark Jones, the head of policy at Born Free Foundation, said: “Born Free has long campaigned for an end to the ivory trade that has devastated elephant populations across Africa over the decades, and we welcome the fact that the UK’s Ivory Act will finally come into force on 6 June.
“However, elephant body parts continue to be sought after for a variety of purposes, particularly by trophy hunters whose cruel activities cause so much suffering and disruption.”
Under international treaties, trade in the body parts of Asian elephants and some populations of African elephants has been prohibited since 1975.
However, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) allows some exceptions.
For example, less “at-risk” populations of elephants from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe are all fair game for body-part traders, so long as a licence is obtained.
Botswana auctioned 70 elephants to be shot in 2021, while South Africa added 150 elephants to their “hunting quota” in 2022.
A change in the law next month will make buying or selling ivory – even if harvested from less “at-risk” elephant populations – a criminal offence, with only qualifying antique items exempted.
The legislation, however, makes no mention of other elephant body parts – such as skins, feet, ears and tails – meaning they can continue to be bought and sold in the UK under the old legal framework.
It is feared the legislation could create a puzzling two-tier system, with law enforcement applying different rules to body parts from the same animal.
The megafauna’s feet are sometimes used to create stools, with the president of Botswana, Mokgweetsi Masisi, creating a stir in 2019 when he gifted visiting dignitaries upholstered seats made from elephant feet.
Elephant skin is said to be a remedy for eczema by practitioners of traditional Chinese and south-east Asian medicine, who grind it up and mix it with oils to create a paste.
Even elephant penises and trunks are sought after by traditional remedy brewers, although official trade data show neither of these body parts have been imported to the UK in at least the last decade.
Conservationist groups have hit out at the Ivory Act previously for failing to clamp down on trophy hunters, who will be unencumbered by the law change, as long as they declare their ivory import is purely for “personal” purposes and not “commercial”.
The government pledged to ban big game hunters bringing parts of endangered animals into the country in late 2021, although the law has still not been brought before parliament, with Conservative MPs telling the Guardian last month that its progress had been scuppered by a “handful of very wealthy peers”.
A government spokesperson said: “Alongside our tough ban on the ivory trade, we are committed to banning the import of hunting trophies from iconic species, like elephants – leading the way in strengthening and supporting their long-term conservation.”
Jones said: “We implore the UK government to make good on its commitment to ban the import of hunting trophies from elephants and other threatened species without further delay and to bring an end to the import of, and trade in, other elephant specimens.”