Ivory is the elephant in the room, Mrs May

Ivory that had been donated to IFAW by members of the British public was on display before being placed into a crushing machine at Victoria Tower Gardens in London's Westminster on Feb. 2014With the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference in Johannesburg later this month fast approaching, and with China and the US leading the way to close their own domestic ivory markets, how should Prime Minister Theresa May respond to the elephant poaching and ivory crisis now facing the world?

The last Great Elephant Census has shown that Africa’s elephant population has dropped by 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, which is a shocking indictment on humanity, that in seven short years you can see the population crash to such a level.

In response, the US and China have started the ball rolling with US President Barack Obama introducing new federal regulations in the US which virtually prohibit the domestic ivory trade. In China President Xi Jinping has also made positive announcements, with the State Forestry Administration, who temporarily suspended ivory carving imports from all African countries including trophies and most importantly pre-CITES ivory imports.

The bar has been set at a high level, so how can the UK Government respond?  

According to figures from CITES, between 2005 and 2014, the UK was a significant re-exporter of ivory for commercial purposes, comprising 990 kg and 54,000 ivory pieces, some 31 percent of the EU’s total.

The UK has also been responsible for exporting 17 raw tusks, although this could be higher if import permits are to be believed. The fact that the UK is still playing such a key role in the global ivory trade through either antique sales or as a transit route, highlighted by the latest TRAFFIC report, shows that the Government must take urgent action if we are to hold our heads high at the CITES conference.

We know illegal ivory trade has been taking advantage of the UK domestic market for some time. We have seen in recent years that people are trying to pass off illegal ivory as being antique and headlines such as “Auction House Fined After Trying to Sell Ivory” and “Christie’s fined £3,250 for offering ‘unworked’ elephant ivory trophy.” The Metropolitan Police Wildlife Crime Unit has hundreds of seized ivory items, which have been made to look like antiques through staining, and were being offered for sale in the UK.   

So we clearly have a problem and it is the elephant in the room. How can we ask other countries to shut down their domestic ivory markets when we still have a thriving one ourselves, which is allowing legal and illegal items to be sold openly and on a daily basis?

The answer Mrs May lies on page 55 of your Conservative Party manifesto; there is a clear and unequivocal commitment to ban the domestic ivory market in the UK. It states the Government will “press for a total ban on ivory sales” in the UK, which includes pre-1947 ivory. This would effectively devalue all ivory in the UK and prevent items from being sold. There should be a provision for heirlooms and antiques to be passed to family members only, but clearly stating that any item offered for sale or involving a transaction of any sort would be a criminal offence.  

So there is a solution within your own manifesto Mrs May and all it takes is a simple statement from you to close our domestic ivory markets prior to the CITES conference, which starts on September 24. If we are to be united on the global stage and work together in stopping the poachers, then we need to close our own domestic ivory market first and send a strong signal across the world that to own ivory is not acceptable and we will no longer play a part in trading it.

So would the Prime Minister follow the lead of China and the US and other countries around the world and make an announcement for a total ban on ivory sales in the UK? Over to you, Mrs May, but remember time is running out for the elephant. 


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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Elsayed Ahmed Mohamed, Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
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Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
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Faye Cuevas, Esq.
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Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
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Pauline Verheij, Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
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Staci McLennan, Director, EU Office
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Tania McCrea-Steele, Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
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Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
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