Antique lovers want to see elephants saved from poaching, too

This is a guest post by Leanna Jones, who has been volunteering in IFAW’s London office. -PM

Last weekend, at the annual Art and Antiques fair, people flocked to at London’s Kensington Olympia from 11am, excited to spend a leisurely Saturday browsing through antique treasures.

Two hours later, 50 protestors arrived. Equipped with elephant onesies and banners, their intention was to raise awareness of the 20,000 elephants killed each year at the hands of the ivory trade.

I was there to find out of there was any common ground between the antique lovers, and those speaking out on behalf of elephants. I wanted to speak to as many people as possible and learn what they really thought about the ivory trade.

Among the 17 people I spoke to, it soon became clear that their interest in antiques was much broader and, in some cases, exclusive of products containing ivory. Most of them knew about the CITES agreement which allows the sale of carved ivory pre-1947, and 76% of my interviewees were in favour of either a total ban, or one with exemptions (for example items of historical significance).

Everyone agreed that killing elephants for ivory is unthinkably cruel, but some people had questions about what a ban might mean for existing ivory items – for example, one couple spoke about an item of sentimental value which had been passed down through generations. Because a ban would target the commercial trade of ivory, in order to eliminate demand, sentimental pieces passed on through families would be unaffected.

From cloudy London, the poaching crisis in Africa can sometimes feel very far away. Interestingly a couple I spoke to from Johannesburg expressed their desire for a total ban before I’d even asked the question!

Some people felt that reducing poaching and the ivory trade in China should be the priority. Here at IFAW, we’re working towards better wildlife law enforcement in Africa and tackling the Chinese markets with support of their government. However, as the EU is the largest global exporter of ivory products it is clear that changes have to be made at home, too.

I also spoke to one antiques trader who had several ivory pieces for sale. He claimed that experts can always tell when modern ivory is being passed off as ‘antique.’ While I didn’t doubt his knowledge and integrity, sadly we know that, across the industry as a whole, the regulations aren’t always followed to the letter – there have been numerous recent examples of auction houses getting caught and fined for selling modern ivory.

What’s more, the arbitrary cut-off point of 1947 is clearly unenforceable – could any dealer really say with confidence whether a piece dates from 1946 or 1948,  without sending it for costly laboratory tests? These loopholes mean that modern ivory sales and, more importantly, the death toll of elephants continues to rise.

Every person I spoke with at the fair wanted elephants to stop being killed. Ivory is a very small part of the antiques world and most people I spoke to were not interested in it.

A total ivory trade ban, with a few key exemptions, is absolutely vital in order to achieve the future everyone says they want, a future where elephants are protected from harm and ivory is only valued when it’s attached to a living, breathing animal.

--LJ

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