The UK Ivory Trade – Your Questions Answered

UK ivory ban - your questions answeredEveryone knows that the ivory trade is harming elephants – at least 20,000 elephants a year are being killed in Africa for their tusks. 

But when it comes to stopping the slaughter, and the link between ivory sold in the UK and poaching in Africa, things can get a little more confusing. So here are answers to some frequently asked questions about ivory in the UK and our campaign for a UK ivory trade ban.

I thought ivory was already illegal in the UK?

It is still legal to buy and sell antique ivory in the UK, or later ivory items so long as they have the correct COTES certification. Antique ivory is defined as pre-1947, meaning the elephant the ivory came from was killed before 1947 and that any carving or working to the item took place before this date as well.

What would the ivory trade ban that IFAW is campaigning for look like?

IFAW would like to see the domestic ivory market closed for all solid ivory items, including those currently deemed ‘antique’. We would consider a small number of exemptions for items such as musical instruments and museum pieces where the age can be properly verified.

Why is IFAW campaigning to stop antique ivory sales?

It’s currently legal to sell items of ivory which are described as antique, meaning the elephant the ivory came from was killed before 1947 and any carving done on the ivory must also have taken place before this date. This is incredibly hard to police as without carbon dating testing all ivory items that are for sale it is very difficult to positively identify which pieces are antique and which are not. Since carbon dating is very expensive it is unlikely this could be rolled out on a large scale for the market. As a result of these identification difficulties, modern ivory is stained and artificially aged by unscrupulous dealers so it can be sold as ‘antique’. Furthermore, ivory sold as antique is sent to other countries where it feeds a general desire for ivory which increases the market for those selling illegal poached modern ivory.

Are you calling for the destruction of ivory?

IFAW are not calling for the wholesale destruction of all ivory. We are seeking to stop the sale of ivory in order to address the problems demand for items cause. If an individual or an organisation such as a museum already owns ivory items, we would not seek to destroy those items, but instead make sure they can’t ever be sold on the open market. Of course, many people own unwanted items of ivory, so we run regular ivory surrenders to allow people to send in their ivory so that we can either safely destroy it or use it for educational purposes.

What about ivory that I already own?

If you own ivory that you wish to keep, the type of ban we want to see would not stop you keeping that item, nor would it stop you giving it as a gift for example in a will as part of an inheritance. You would not, however, be able to sell that ivory, use it as payment or swap it for other goods or services. And if you do want to dispose of any ivory you own, you can surrender it to IFAW so that we can safely destroy it or use it to educate.

Won’t an ivory ban increase the value of ivory as it becomes harder to purchase?

No. Past examples show that the opposite is true. When stockpiles of ivory have previously been sold in order to flood the market and reduce the value, the price of ivory has actually risen. Conversely, since China started shutting its domestic ivory market earlier this year, the price of ivory in the country has dropped dramatically.

Does the UK have an impact on elephant poaching taking place today?

Although the UK’s links to the killing of elephants for ivory mostly occurred in our colonial past, the fact remains that we and the rest of the EU are some of the largest exporters of ivory to Asia. Closing the antique ivory loophole in the UK would have a dramatic impact on the export to Asia and subsequent demand for ivory in those countries. Less demand means less profit can be made from poaching elephants. Therefore the UK’s role in the chain is still vital today.

What should I do if I see ivory for sale that I think might be illegal?

You should report any suspected illegal items of ivory your local Police Wildlife Crime Officer, to the National Wildlife Crime Unit, or, in the case of international movement such as items being posted abroad, to Border Force. You can also report it to us, and we can help you pass the information on to the relevant authorities.

Wildlife Crime Officers are specialist officers within the police force who have built up in-depth knowledge of crimes involving wildlife and therefore will have a better understanding of the issue and the legislation.

If you see an ivory item for sale on eBay, as well as telling the police, you should also report it to eBay itself as a violation of its site policy. eBay will then liaise with the police force prior to removing the item from the site.

What is an ivory surrender?

An ivory surrender allows members of the public to send IFAW any unwanted items of ivory. We will either destroy the items sent to us or use them for educational purposes in support of our important work against the ivory trade.

How do I take part in the ivory surrender?

Simply send your unwanted ivory items to us and we’ll take care of the rest! You can find more details here.

Can I buy ivory on holiday?

When you are abroad you may find yourself somewhere where it’s legal to buy and sell ivory within that country.  However, if you try and move the ivory across an international border, you are likely to  be breaking the law and could find that you have your items confiscated and may face a court appearance, be fined and get a criminal record. Regardless of the legal situation, if you care about elephants, please never buy ivory when you’re travelling abroad.

How do I tell the difference between plastic and ivory?

Telling the difference between ivory and plastic can be hard. A general rule is that plastic is lighter and may contain small air bubbles or moulding marks. It will be less expensive than ivory and will not contain the natural growth lines often seen in ivory.  You may also spot stains and brush marks used to give an artificial ageing effect. These techniques can also sometimes be applied to modern ivory to make it look antique. If in doubt, do not buy the item, even if the salesperson or online advert claims it is legal/antique ivory. The safe option is not to buy any items that look odd or suspicious. Again if you see items which do seem suspicious, please report them to us at info-uk@ifaw.org or tell your local Wildlife Crime Officer or UK Border Force.  


We hope this answers some of your questions about the UK ivory trade, and why we’re campaigning for an ivory trade ban. If you have a question that we haven’t addressed, do get in touch at info-uk@ifaw.org and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.