VICTORY: US institutes final ivory regulations to save elephants

It is clear that the status quo wasn’t doing enough to protect elephants from American tradeThe Obama Administration has finalized new legal protections for African elephants, culminating a series of loophole closures that should make it much harder for illegal ivory traffickers to turn a profit in the United States.

The announcement by US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) Director Dan Ashe comes after more than two years of economic reviews and stakeholder outreach. Ashe told the New York Times “the people of the United States will be speaking loudly and saying we value living elephants in the wild more than we value the creation and the trade of trinkets made from ivory.”

IFAW President and CEO Azzedine Downes called the rules “a signal to the world that Americans accept our shared responsibility to protect wildlife, wherever it may roam,” adding that “we have come a long way from the days when an elephant’s tusks were the only part deemed worth saving.”

Taken as a whole, the regulations halt most imports and exports of ivory products, and limit interstate ivory sales to antique products and certain other items with small amounts of ivory. Nothing in the law affects mere ownership of ivory; Americans can keep what they have, and can even pass down heirlooms. But when it comes to commercial trade, sellers will now have to show that their wares aren’t from recently poached animals.

You can find a full breakdown of what’s allowed and what’s prohibited here.

Ultimately, people want to know “How much will these rules help elephants?”

It is clear that the status quo wasn’t doing enough to protect elephants from American trade: The US market has consistently ranked among the world’s largest – an (up until now) largely unregulated, multi-million-dollar black box where ivory could be bought and sold with almost no oversight, whether it was old or freshly poached. We believe that the new rules are a crucial step towards bringing the poaching crisis under control, though much still depends on the unglamorous next steps: implementation, enforcement, and diplomatic follow-through to ensure that this momentum doesn’t stop at America’s borders.

While the changes are a big improvement, they’re not perfect. The regulations still permit sales of documented antiques and certain older items with a small amount of ivory. But the documentation requirement is only loosely defined, putting pressure on FWS (and groups like IFAW) to ensure that ivory buyers and sellers uphold the spirit and the letter of the law. We also have to make sure that law enforcement agents get the tools and funding they need to keep illegal imports from slipping into the black market.  

Additionally, the rule limits trophy hunters to importing “only” two dead elephants (per hunter) annually. IFAW lobbied hard to close this loophole even further and we will continue to press the issue, especially as new studies call the conventional wisdom on trophy hunting further into question. However, even this represents an improvement, as there had been no numeric limit on trophy imports at all prior to the change.

The third element I mentioned above – diplomatic follow-through – is just as important as what we do here at home. Other major ivory-consuming countries like China and Vietnam have begun to steer their ivory laws in the right direction; US/China negotiations have already resulted in a pledge from President Xi Jinping to shut down the Chinese ivory market, although tangible progress has been slow in coming and it remains vital that the US continue to set an example.

It is heartening that the rules were released just before top envoys meet for the US/China Strategic & Economic Dialogue, and it also showcases strong leadership in the build-up to a major meeting of the parties to CITES, the international treaty that governs wildlife trade, in September. Ominously, Zimbabwe and Namibia have recently begun lobbying for permission to sell their stockpiled ivory, a move that, if allowed, could spur yet another wave of poaching.

IFAW has been deeply involved in this process from the beginning, participating in far-reaching conversations with other stakeholders outside the conservation and animal welfare community, including musical instrument makers, ivory retailers, auctioneers, and more. Our members were among the more than one million Americans who urged the White House to get these new rules on the books, and your consistent support has helped us fight back against efforts to weaken them in the process.

Hyperbolic scare-mongering from groups like Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association has stoked some Congressional efforts to stop USFWS from doing its job, so we will have to keep a close watch out for more attacks in the future.

Fortunately we have also seen a groundswell of support for state laws banning ivory sales coast to coast, which help to reinforce the federal rules and shut down loopholes that the Fish & Wildlife Service can’t reach. So far, Hawaii, California, Washington, New York and New Jersey have all passed legislation or ballot initiatives to restrict intrastate ivory trade, and more efforts are underway in Massachusetts, Oregon and elsewhere.

Every piece of ivory comes from a dead elephant. If the new federal and state laws prevent even one elephant from being killed for its tusks—and they certainly will do much more than that—they will have been worth fighting for.

--PL

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