The international trade in so called ‘modern ivory’ has been banned since 1989. That makes it illegal to sell any ivory item internationally that is older than from 1947. But, right here in the UK, each and every day hundreds and possibly thousands of ivory items are traded - they can be sold and purchased without a single formal document required to prove their age.
Every day people are trading pieces of dead elephant. But not just dead elephants, elephants that were slaughtered specifically for their magnificent ivory tusks. Whilst trade in raw ivory isn’t allowed in the UK, items known as ‘worked ivory’ can be pretty much bought and sold at will as long as they are deemed to be from before the 1947 cut-off date. ‘Worked ivory’ means anything that has been changed from its original form, for example, changed into jewellery, figurines, letter openers, etc.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is one of many organisations trying to change this. For many years we’ve been calling for a ban, with limited, sensible and workable exemptions on the sale of ivory - of any age. As of April 3, this ban now looks likely to come to fruition following Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove announcing plans for an ivory ban, stating that the new law would “reaffirm the UK’s global leadership on this critical issue, demonstrating our belief that the abhorrent ivory trade should become a thing of the past”.
This is truly great news, but now we need to see the legislation laid down before Parliament and sped through the Parliamentary channels it needs to go through. The clock is ticking for elephants and we are at a tipping point for their future survival.
Often we’re asked why we need this ban if it only deals with antiques. Naturally some people think that if the elephant is dead already and only antique ivory is being traded then this can’t be contributing to new elephants being killed right now, but we disagree. Each year at least 20,000 African elephants are slaughtered for their tusks; to make ornaments, jewellery, carvings - killed simply to make something that will just sit on a mantelpiece or grace someone’s body. And the problem is that antique ivory is contributing.
Allowing the sale of ivory continues to give ivory credibility. At IFAW we are resolute that ivory only has value and beauty on a living elephant. Allowing the sale of ivory, and therefore attaching a value and premium to it, continues to mask the reality that every single piece of ivory is from a slaughtered elephant. It fuels demand in countries that are the main buyers of illegal ivory, like China (so much of the ivory sold in the UK is exported to Asia and China in particular), and as a result it allows for what is known as a ‘parallel market’ to thrive. Parallel markets are where illegal products and legal products trade alongside one another. They make things confusing for the public, they are incredibly difficult to enforce and they allow illegal product, in this case ivory, to be easily laundered through legal channels.
To clarify though - this isn’t some righteous cleansing of sins exercise. We’ve never wanted to see every piece of ivory seized and destroyed, we don’t want historically significant works of ivory stripped from museums and we certainly don’t want someone to be unable to gift or hand down something sentimental to them or their family. Likewise, if ivory isn’t a key factor in the product - so for example an antique piece of furniture with some minimal ivory inlay, or traditional bagpipes then we don’t want to ban the sale of that. All we want is for anything that celebrates ivory as an item of beauty to not be sold, to not prop up the deadly market.
We must do all we can to maintain the pressure to make this law happen. If not, how can we in the UK, the upcoming hosts of the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference: London 2018, be hosting the event whilst propping up the slaughter of these magnificent creatures? How can we, recognised as a global leader in the fight against illegal wildlife crime, be supporters of parallel markets? It simply makes no sense.
We’re confident that the Government will make this legislation a priority. We know from polling that MPs and the public support the ban. We know that the consultation on an ivory ban saw a staggering 70,000 responses, with 88% in favour of a ban. We hope that the ban, with limited exemptions as detailed in the outline proposals, will be in place by the time of the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in London in October and be announced in front of a delegation of key ministers and dignitaries from the world stage. Until then, we’ll continue to do all we can to make this ban happen, knowing that it’s one of the most important things that we in the UK can do right now to save our planet’s elephants... before it’s too late.