This is a great week for elephants. After years of campaigning from International Fund For Animal Welfare (IFAW) and other conservation organisations, a UK ban on the sale of ivory has now been passed by parliament. What this means is that very soon it will be illegal to sell ivory products, of any age, in the UK (with some limited and sensible exemptions).
Although many people assumed it already was illegal, prior to this ban entering the statute books, it has been completely legal to sell ivory deemed as ‘antique’ (for ivory this means pre-1947) as long as it is ‘worked’ (meaning changed via carving or reshaping).
The issue with this current system is that quite simply it’s helping to kill elephants with any legal trade providing a smokescreen for illegal trade which fuels poaching. In fact, more than 20,000 elephants are slaughtered in Africa for their ivory every single year. That’s around 55 elephants killed per day on average. Magnificent elephants, cruelly and pointlessly killed for trinkets or jewellery, to create status symbols and decorations – it simply beggars belief.
Whilst it’s incredibly difficult to quantify the full impact that the legal ivory market in the UK is having in terms of the number of elephants killed for illegal ivory, there are some clear indicators that it does have an effect. The current system is very self-regulated when it comes to selling ivory. There is no widely used or required formal system for ageing ivory accurately; it is easy to ‘stain’ or age modern ivory to look like antique ivory and the open sale of ivory creates a parallel market. Legal and illegal ivory, which look pretty much identical, therefore coexist in the same space. Various traders and auction houses, including some of the very high profile players, have been fined for selling modern ivory disguised as antique in recent years and the current system makes it impossible for traders, the public and more importantly enforcers to successfully eliminate illegal ivory from the supply chain.
So why now? Well one thing is for sure – the mood and attitude towards ivory in the UK has changed. In the UK we may love elephants now but as a nation we have not always been their friend. Owing to our colonial history, the UK sits on one of the biggest hauls of privately owned ivory globally and in the past was by far the biggest ivory consumer. Testament to this mass ownership and attitudinal change is IFAW’s recent ivory surrender. This allowed ivory owners to give up their ivory for destruction (or donate it to be used for educational purposes). These are ivory owners who, often despite great sentimental value, for all the right reasons, don’t want a piece of dead elephant in their house anymore. By giving up their ivory, they have removed it from the market and stopped it ever being used to fuel demand, for profit, or propping up the illusion that ivory has any beauty or value without being on a living elephant.
IFAW’s most recent ivory surrender saw the elephant-loving British public give up a staggering half a metric tonne of ivory, including many worked and unworked whole tusks. The three previous surrenders over the last 15 years saw an average of just 28kgs per surrender donated!
Now the mood is right and the law is right, but elephants will sadly still be poached. Whilst we can definitely celebrate that the UK is getting one of the toughest ivory bans in the world, we mustn’t rest on our laurels just yet. We need the rest of the EU to follow as the next step to ultimately end the ivory trade globally. The attitude of UK citizens is reflective of those in the EU – that there was a time and a place for ivory, but that isn’t now. That’s why IFAW will be doing all we can to drive forward an EU-wide ban, but once again we can’t do it alone, so make your voice heard and join the fight for elephant protection, but first...celebrate.