Why D.C. Is the New Hub for U.S. Ivory Sales


Rachael Bale, National Geographic

Date Published
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Has the nation’s capital become the new center of the U.S. ivory trade? Investigators counted almost three times as many ivory items for sale in the Washington, D.C., area in 2016 than ten years earlier, even as the amount of ivory for sale in other parts of the country has been decreasing.

From antique shops to flea markets, galleries, and even a tobacco shop, some 658 pieces of ivory for sale were identified in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area by investigators with TRAFFIC, the wildlife monitoring organization. A new report from TRAFFIC, with support from the World Wildlife Fund and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a conservation-focused nonprofit, details the amounts and types of ivory for sale in six major U.S. cities and several online marketplaces.

“We were surprised to see greater D.C. top the list of elephant ivory in retail,” says TRAFFIC’s Rachel Kramer, one of the report’s authors. Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco have long been the main ivory hubs in the U.S. 

The surveys conducted for this report, she says, suggest sales have shifted, most likely because California and New York have imposed restrictions on the ivory trade far stronger than regulations in many other states. Some sellers said as much to investigators, Kramer says.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crushed a ton of seized elephant ivory in New York City in 2015 to send a message—to the public, governments, and poachers—to end the illegal ivory trade that is devastating African elephant populations.

Much of the illegal ivory sold in the U.S. is passed off as legal ivory, usually labeled as antique, which is why advocates are eager to close down the legal markets as much as possible. (See: Antique Dealers Come Face-to-Face With Ivory Ban). The illegal ivory trade is responsible for the slaughter of some 30,000 elephants each year.

“Limiting ivory trafficking at the state level is a really important step towards closing the illicit U.S. market entirely,” says IFAW’s Peter LaFontaine. But, he says, “we want to avoid the ‘whack-a-mole’ scenario where ivory dealers simply pack up and move across a state border.”

The sale of ivory across international boundaries has been banned since 1990, but the U.S.—like many countries—has continued to allow people to buy and sell ivory within its borders, subject to certain regulations. The federal government, however, only has the power to regulate trade across state lines, not within states themselves.

The federal government’s newest regulations, enacted July 2016, were part of a joint agreement with China in which both countries announced to “near-total” bans on their domestic ivory trades in an effort to protect African elephants. 

The U.S.’s rules limit interstate commercial trade to antiques that are more than a hundred years old. Within states themselves, the federal government only has authority to limit ivory sales to items imported before the international ban in 1990.

California, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Washington are the only states with their own ivory trading bans. Since 2015 California, for example, has allowed ivory items to be sold within the state only if they’re more than a hundred years old and composed of less than 5 percent ivory.

When ivory sellers became aware of California’s more stringent regulations, it’s likely that many in Los Angeles and San Francisco simply moved their inventory elsewhere. Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland have no ivory trade regulations beyond those imposed by the federal government.

As new regulations are implemented, it’s important to keep an eye on where sales are increasing. There’s one place in particular the report identifies: the Internet. (See: Internet Giants Struggle to Keep Ivory Off the Market).

“Ivory is coming off the shelves in the U.S., which is a win for elephants,” Kramer says. “But as state and federal law enforcement crack down on illegal sellers, trade is apt to move online and into back rooms.”