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August 12, 2008

Ivory Irony

China and the United States are two Olympic powerhouses, and they'll be competing for the highest medal count over the next two weeks.  Athletics aside, the two countries are also in dubious competition for the dishonor of being known as consumers of vast amounts of wildife products, including ivory.

That’s right.  Ivory.  Nearly two decades after the legal international ivory trade was banned in 1989, elephants—both African and Asian—continue to be threatened by poaching to supply the illegal market in ivory trinkets. And sadly, the United States is nipping at China’s heels as a leading destination for illegal ivory.

Elephant_jpeg_2
© Corbis
The The U.S. is becoming a leading destination for ivory.

It is estimated that some 20,000-25,000 elephants are poached every year worldwide to supply the illegal trade in ivory, and China is the leading destination for poached ivory.

There, tusks are carved into jewelry or small figurines that are sold as tourist trinkets, or exported illegally to other countries and sold to unsuspecting buyers.

That’s where the United States comes into the picture. A study released in March 2008—and partly funded by The HSUS—found that the United States has the second largest elephant ivory retail market in the world after China. Investigators found more than 24,000 ivory items in 657 outlets in 16 towns and cities.

New York City had, by far, the most ivory for sale, followed by San Francisco and Los Angeles.  The researchers, experts in the identification and aging of ivory, discovered that about one-third of the ivory items they saw on sale appeared to have been crafted after 1989, making their importation to the United States illegal.

They further found that most were from China, providing a direct link between ivory trinkets sold in the United States and poached elephants.

Many people think that it is illegal to sell or buy any type of elephant ivory in the United States,  but that is not so. There are several federal laws that prohibit certain practices but these laws have loopholes that allow the sale of certain kinds of ivory.

It is legal to sell African elephant ivory legally imported before 1990, ivory that is more than 100 years old and is thus “antique,” or ivory from extinct elephant relatives like mammoths.

Ivorytusks_jpeg
© The HSUS
Poached elephant tusks.

The trouble with this is that it is impossible for anyone buying ivory to know if it is legal or not. Factories in Asia and Africa produce fake ivory antiques.

And ivory traffickers take advantage of this, claiming to anyone who asks that the ivory they are selling fits one of the loopholes.

And now, unbelievably, China is soon to receive a new batch of ivory—legal this time. In July, China was approved under a United Nations treaty to receive more than 100 tons of government-stockpiled ivory from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

This includes ivory from cruel mass elephant culls. And although China is supposed to carefully control the ivory so as not to let it leak out of the country, we know that the illegal ivory trail from China and the United States is too well greased.  Soon, even that ivory will make it to the United States in the form of trinkets sold in the open market.   

The global trade in wildlife products is enormous—second only to the drug trade in dollar value. It's never far from our mind at The HSUS, and we'll continue to work to hard to combat this trade.

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