The gavel drops on U.S. auction houses trafficking in ivory
Today IFAW released its newest report, Bidding Against Survival: The Elephant Poaching Crisis and the Role of Auctions in the U.S. Ivory Market, the result of months of undercover investigations and internet data mining of the U.S. auction industry. The goal of this project was to better understand how market forces in the United States are driving one of the greatest wildlife extinction threats of our time – halfway across the planet - in Africa.
Our investigation came at a time when the retail landscape was shifting due to new federal regulations proposed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which would protect elephants by strengthening the rules for ivory dealers. When the system is finalized (likely this year or next) sellers will need to provide documentation that their ivory is antique and did not come from a recently poached elephant. Unfortunately, the proposal has been met with resistance from the auction industry, which asserts that it is not a participant in the illegal trade.
The information we uncovered contradicts that claim. In the course of our study, we attended fourteen live auctions and auction previews at galleries across the United States, where we found 833 ivory lots (a lot is the auction term for an item or group of items)—some valued up to US$25,000. We also monitored 340 online auctions and discovered an average of 465 ivory lots per week. Just one site, LiveAuctioneers.com, may facilitate much as US$13 million a year in ivory sales. Beyond the eye-opening volumes of ivory for sale, the question of proof is even more unsettling: almost none of the businesses surveyed were able to provide any documentation of where their products came from, or even how old they were, beyond guesswork.
Some of this was simply due to unfamiliarity with the law: auction house staff generally did not understand the new and proposed federal regulations, or even the few safeguards that were in place before the changes. However, most of the retailers we investigated didn’t even make a good faith effort to avoid selling recently-poached ivory. Often auction houses expected buyers to independently research the products they were buying, claiming their transactions are a “two-way deal.” They placed their trust in their suppliers and some even claimed they could tell whether an ivory carving was old or new, legal or not, simply by inspecting it visually—which is nearly impossible to do without a lab analysis.
As we detailed earlier this year in another report on the U.S. ivory trade, smugglers are bringing thousands of carvings, tusks, and other ivory items past our borders every year, to be sold on the open market, and some auction houses are most likely inadvertent participants in this trafficking chain.
U.S. retailers are operating in a broken system with complicated regulations that present problems for law enforcement. Our recommendation is simple: reputable auction houses, galleries and websites should support a strong ban of ivory products with (at most) only limited exceptions. Those few exceptions should all be accompanied by documentation.
Auction houses will not traffic in ivory products if they cannot sell them, so let’s do what we can to snuff out demand entirely. Patronize only those businesses that comply with the new rules, and don’t buy ivory anywhere – remember, every piece comes from a dead elephant.
Poachers kill one of these amazing animals every 15 minutes, day after day, month after month, to meet ravenous demand for ivory in the United States, Asia, and elsewhere. No matter how ornately carved, these trinkets should not be deemed more valuable than the fate of a species.
Take action now by telling the White House to Stand Strong for Elephants.