Obama Administration Targets Trade in African Elephant Ivory


By Peter Baker and Jada F. Smith, New York Times 

Date Published

NAIROBI, Kenya — President Obama will forgo the usual tourist safari during his visit here, but his administration on Saturday announced new legal changes intended to help protect endangered wildlife in African nations.

The changes would restrict the sale of African elephant ivory across state lines in the United States while adding new limits to commercial exports. Adding to existing federal laws, the rule changes would amount to a near total ban on the commercial trade of African elephant ivory in the United States.

The focus on wildlife came as Mr. Obama opened a two-day visit here, his first as president. He met with his Kenyan counterpart, President Uhuru Kenyatta, to discuss a wide array of issues, including security given the threat from the Shabab, a violent affiliate of Al Qaeda based in Somalia. And the two hosted an entrepreneurship meeting to promote economic development in this fast-growing region of the world.

But the administration hoped the new elephant ivory rules would show its commitment in a global fight against poaching that has drained countries like Kenya of some of its most-prized natural resources. Over the years, the United States has grown to be the second-largest consumer for poached ivory, while often serving as a conduit for the products to the world’s largest consumer, China. Known for its safaris, Kenya relies on tourism, which makes up 12 percent of its economy.

The proposed changes would still allow Americans to sell ivory across state lines, but only if it meets the strict criteria of the antiques exemption listed in the Endangered Species Act. The act identifies an antique as an item that is 100 years or older, that is partly or entirely composed of a species listed under the act, and that has not been repaired or modified with any such species after Dec. 27, 1973. It also must have been imported through one of 13 specific antique ports within the United States.

Certain manufactured items that contain a small amount of ivory — like musical instruments and ivory-handled guns — survived the cut after some lobbying from the affected industries, but the new rule will also ban interstate sales of so-called sport-hunted trophies and ivory that was imported in the United States as part of a household move or inheritance.

The current law allows for the sale of ivory and ivory products if they were lawfully imported before the date the African elephant was listed in an international convention on endangered species, but only if the seller can provide documents proving that the elephant had died of natural causes or that the ivory had been obtained before the convention took effect. Experts say the new revisions are necessary because it is difficult for the average consumer to distinguish legal ivory from illegal ivory.

Many buyers can be duped by fraudulent documents, if the buyer requests documentation at all. The goal of the new rules is to remove or severely limit the legal avenues that poachers and traffickers have been using to sell what turns out to be illegally obtained ivory.

“The United States is among the world’s largest consumers of wildlife, both legal and illegal,” said Daniel M. Ashe, director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. “By tightening domestic controls on trade in elephant ivory and allowing only very narrow exceptions, we will close existing avenues that are exploited by traffickers and address ivory trade that poses a threat to elephants in the wild.”

The new rules, which will not become official until after a public comment period, would also ban foreign ivory commerce. Items bought and sold between countries would have to meet the antiques exemption or be part of a product like a musical instrument containing a small amount of ivory. The new rules would also put the same state-to-state prohibitions on foreign commerce in sport-hunted trophies and ivory imported or exported as part of a household move or inheritance.

The Obama administration — as part of a global effort to combat poaching — has increased its efforts to reduce the market for illegal ivory in the past year, with a pledge to use American intelligence agencies to track and target those who benefit from wildlife trafficking, a trade estimated at $20 billion a year. States have also enacted sweeping bans on ivory sales, with legislation now being enforced in New York, New Jersey and California. Fifteen other states are expected to introduce legislation within the next few years.

For activists like John Calvelli, executive vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the announcement is a “huge win” and a positive step.

“What we need is to send a message to traffickers that this is unacceptable, that you cannot get away with this,” Mr. Calvelli said. “On many levels, this is a way to show our solidarity with folks around the world.”