The UK’s ban on ivory sales will not protect the elephants
The great majority of ivory in the UK is worked ivory dating from the 18th to early 20th centuries and is from long-dead elephants. Banning the sale of antique, worked ivory in the UK will not make any difference to the market for new ivory in Asia, and hence the poaching of elephants, claims Richard Thomas, the official spokesman for Traffic, the most respected collectors and interpreters of data about the trade in ivory.
Thomas’s statement goes against the premise underlying the bill to ban the UK trade in ivory, which had its second reading in parliament on 4 June. The government is aiming to announce its enactment at a large international conference about the illegal wildlife trade, which the Foreign Office is hosting in October in London. It fulfils the promise made in the 2015 Conservative manifesto and is strongly supported by both Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, and Environment Secretary Michael Gove.
Lobby groups such as Born Free, the World Wildlife Fund and 38 Degrees have campaigned hard for this law, with petitions online such as Avaaz’s Save the Elephants: Stop Bloody Ivory, which asked people “to reject any exemptions in the global ban on the ivory trade…to take all necessary steps to enforce that ban and protect the elephants”. This effective and emotive campaign had 430,000 signatures.
All these petitions are phrased in such a way as to suggest that a ban on the sale of all ivory, whatever its date, will directly or indirectly cause the market to die out and therefore save the elephants, but this is not borne out by the realities of the market. Thomas says: “There is a lot of fuss being made about the UK being a major re-exporter of ivory, but I suspect that limiting the sale of ivory in the UK will not make any difference to the demand for ivory in Asia, where the taste is for new items.” His statement is based on the 2016 survey by Traffic of the UK trade, which showed that no new or “raw” (unworked) ivory—which derives from elephants killed now or recently—was seen in any of the UK’s antique markets or shops. It also stated that the majority of the exports from the UK for 2005-15 was of worked ivory and only 2% of raw ivory.
Trade data therefore needs to be analysed more critically. For example, the CITES Trade Database export data for elephant ivory and ivory products for 2006–15 (1,874 ivory transactions) states that the EU is the single largest exporter of ivory items by number of reported transactions. Here, the key phrase is “by number”. Since nearly all the EU trade is in worked items, these are not “bloody tusks” but, for the most part, the usual collectables that you find in an antiques market, the knick-knacks of the expanding 19th-century bourgeoisie.
Thomas also rejects the idea that the UK is a clearing house for poached ivory tusks, the “bloody ivory” of the Avaaz petition. “There is precious little evidence that tusks are being shipped via the UK, except illegally in aeroplanes that touch down here,” he says. According to data published by the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) in 2016, 80% of seizure cases over the last decade, with the UK as the final destination, involved just one or two items—in other words, tourist smuggling.
It is in Asia that there is huge demand for ivory, and the route from Africa is mostly direct to the continent. Despite Kenya’s campaign against poaching, tonnes of ivory are being shipped out of the port, and flown out of the airport, of Mombasa, and also transported out of Sudan with the connivance of the Sudanese army, destined for Asia via the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, says Keith Somerville, the author of Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa.
“It is not the markets in the West that are fuelling the poaching crisis,” says Thomas. “President Obama’s banning of the ivory trade in the US in 2014 was of much less consequence than the 2017 Chinese moratorium on the importation and working of ivory”.
Even this moratorium may have a limited impact on ivory poaching, however. A Traffic survey in China has shown that many people there do not know about the ban, and one in five said that they would continue to buy ivory items regardless. There is also the “whack-a-mole” effect; as the ivory workshops close down in China, they are popping up in Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, and the unrepentant Japanese ivory industry carries on undiminished. “More processing of ivory is also beginning to take place in Africa”, says Thomas, “and even when a seizure of ivory is made there, very little follow-up takes place.”
The much publicised bonfires of captured ivory tusks are foolish, he believes: “All they do is put the price up.” He thinks it would be better for government stockpiles in Africa to be sold. Botswana, for example, derives 15 tonnes a year from natural elephant mortality and, together with Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, it has CITES permission to put it on the market. There have been two sales so far: one in 1999, when Japan bought the whole lot, and in 2008, with Japan and China the buyers. There is opposition, however, from some parties to CITES who believe that such sales encourage demand, but Thomas says that Traffic has found no such link.
There is no doubt that African countries with declining populations of elephants require financial and practical assistance to guard them, while those like Botswana, with large herds, need help with husbanding them, but in both cases, the incentives must be stronger than the pull of the Asian trade. The proposed UK law provides for neither. The conservationist Lucy Vigne, an ivory trade researcher working in East Africa, has gone so far as to say that “This recent issue in the West has been taking away valuable time and resources from dealing with the big issues we are facing urgently, ie; the trade in new ivory in Asia and poaching in Africa” (Financial Times, 9 September 2016).
And then there is the onus that the proposed law puts on museum curators, who will have to decide which worked, pre-1918, ivory items qualify as being of “outstandingly high artistic, cultural or historical value” and may therefore be sold. This will be in addition to their role in the export licensing process, whereby in 2016-17 nearly 30,000 applications for works of art, manuscripts and archives were considered by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, with museum curators painstakingly evaluating the most important of them. Did the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs consider the unintended consequences of this law as it was drafting the bill?
Ivory veneered tea caddy, Indian, about 1800. Made for the western market
Ivory pass notes
Raw ivory Unworked tusks or parts of tusks.
Worked ivory Defined by the 1997 EU Regulation as “specimens that were significantly altered from their natural raw state for jewellery, adornment, art, utility or musical instruments, more than 50 years before the entry into force of the Regulation, that is before 3 March 1947 (EU Guidelines (2017/C154/06). The great majority of the ivory in the UK, US, and EU is worked ivory (see Re-export of ivory). In the 20th century, most of its domestic uses have been replaced by materials such as plastic, while there is almost no UK demand for modern knick-knacks.
Mortality ivory Tusks from elephants that have died of natural causes.
Re-export of ivory By its nature, all ivory in the UK, EU and US has been imported at some point. Any passage outwards of such items is called a “re-export”.
3 March 1947 Fifty years before the 1997 EU Regulation (see below). Worked ivory items produced before 1947 may be sold without restrictions, while a certificate is required for ivory items produced after 1947. This will change in the UK under the proposed law.
1 July 1975 The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) enters into force, run by the United Nations Environment Programme. CITES is the authority that provides the benchmarks and framework regulations for the ivory trade. By June 2016 there were 183 contracting parties to the convention and meetings are held every two to three years. CITES is funded by the countries party to the convention, with the UK a major contributor. The CITES management authority for the UK is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
1976 Traffic is founded, the leading NGO researching the trade in wild animals and plants, with 120 staff of more than 25 nationalities, organised in six regional teams in key wildlife trading areas of the world. Its data and their presentation are considered objective and statistically sound, and contribute largely to CITES policy and to ETIS (see below) reports, which are available online. Traffic’s headquarters are in Cambridge, UK.
August 1976 The UK was one of the first countries to ratify CITES, now largely superseded by the 1997 EU Regulation and its 2017 amendment (see below).
1989 the CITES resolution commonly known as the “Ivory Ban”, whereby international, but not domestic, trade in African elephant ivory was prohibited as from 18 January 1990 (already banned for the Asian elephant from I July 1975). International prices fall sharply; African nations, with the financial assistance of Western countries, make efforts to enforce the ban. There is a revival in elephant populations. But some African countries with strong elephant conservation programmes argue that a total ban on selling confiscated ivory hurts their abilities to fund conservation.
1997 CITES meeting votes to reintroduce a limited trade as from 1999.
1997 and 1 July 2017 Strengthening of the 1997 EU Regulation by which the EU implements CITES. As from 2017, the Regulation decrees:
no re-exporting of raw ivory, even if it qualifies as a pre-1975 Convention specimen
worked ivory produced before 1947 may still be sold freely, but proof must be provided that the item was acquired before 3 March 1947
worked ivory items produced post-1947 may still be sold with a certificate. There is no clear evidence, the guidelines state, to justify suspending the sale of worked ivory.
1999 Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) is set up, a database of seizures of elephant specimens anywhere in the world since 1989. ETIS has been managed by Traffic on behalf of parties to CITES and it is currently housed at the Traffic East/Southern Africa office in Harare, Zimbabwe.
25 February 2014 President Obama’s Director’s Order 210. Since then the movement of ivory into the US has effectively been banned, and internal commercial transactions are subject to very heavy restrictions that vary from state to state.
2016 CITES meeting recommended that countries with a legal domestic market that contribute to poaching or illegal trade take steps to close down commerce in raw and worked ivory. Traffic’s research proves that the UK’s legal trade does not contribute to poaching or the illegal trade. 31 December 2017 China’s total ban on the commercial processing and sale of ivory and ivory products comes into force.
The UK approach: experts to allow a very few sales
All trade in ivory, whether within the UK or in export from the UK, will be prohibited, except for:
Items of “outstandingly high artistic, cultural or historical value” and predating 1918, which must have a certificate provided by an accredited expert
Pre-1918 portrait miniatures on ivory
Pre-1947 items with less than 10% ivory content that is “integral to it”
Pre-1975 musical instruments with less than 20% ivory
Acquisitions by museums (as accredited by the Arts Council England, the Welsh government, Museums Galleries Scotland and Northern Ireland Museums Council
The French approach: sales allowed if registered
Trade is banned except for:
Items made from 1947 to 1975 weighing or incorporating no more than 200g of ivory
Musical instruments incorporating ivory elements
Specimens for scientific purposes or cultural display in museums
Trade in any item that is more than 20% ivory must be registered with a national database.
Clarification: the paragraph quoting Keith Somerville was amended on 3 July to make it clear that ivory is being transported out of Sudan, not Kenya, with the connivance of the Sudanese army
ANNA SOMERS COCKS
2nd July 2018 08:52 GMT
Appeared in The Art Newspaper, 303 July/August 2018
‘Traffic’ Says UK Ivory Antiques Trade Won’t Harm Elephants
Richard Thomas, speaking for the non-governmental organization Traffic, the leading analysts and experts on the trade in ivory, said the UK’s proposed ban on antique ivory sales would not in fact, harm elephant populations. Traffic’s research has found that a ban on the trade of antique ivory goods in the UK would not impact the primary Asian markets, which are for new ivory objects.
Traffic’s statement completely contradicts the position taken by lobbying groups such as Born Free, the World Wildlife Fund, and online petitions such as Awaaz’, which claim that a complete halt to the antique ivory trade is necessary to preserve elephant populations.
Passage of a highly restrictive UK law, held to be the toughest in the world, is imminent, and the media is rife with commentary that legal domestic ivory markets are intrinsically linked to the illegal ivory trade. Such claims now appear unsupported by facts.
The UK law has had its second reading in Parliament and is expected to be passed into law just before a major international wildlife conference in London in October 2018. The proposed law presented by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will prevent anyone in the UK from buying, selling, importing or exporting ivory with very few exceptions. Exempted items would allow sale of:
musical instruments which contain less than 20% ivory made before 1975.
items which contain less than 10% ivory, made before 1947, and where the ivory is integral to the item – a de minimis exemption.
items which are over 100 years old of significant artistic, cultural and historic value, and deemed to be “the rarest and most important objects of their type” through a review by museum or other appointed specialist.
the continued sale of ivory to museums, and between museums will be allowed. However, as museums will be determining whether an object meets the “rarest” qualification that enables an object to be sold in the market, museums will also be the only buyers allowed for objects that do not meet those specifications – leading to a potential conflict of interest.
Art collectors, dealers and dealer organizations, and museums have always agreed that raw ivory and new carved ivory imports and all new ivory sales should be banned. But they have consistently said that banning sales of antique ivory in the UK and USA would have little benefit for elephants. It turns out that the dealers and collectors were right.
An article by Anna Somers Cocks in The Art Newspaper, The UK’s ban on ivory sales will not protect the elephants, July 2, 2018, describes the key points of Traffic’s research and conclusions. Traffic found no new or raw ivory being sold by UK antique dealers. The UK’s annual exports for 2015 were only 2% raw ivory.
An earlier released study of CITES data alleged that between 2010 and 2015 Britain was the largest exporter of legal ivory in the world. Traffic also found that this data, promoted by other wildlife groups, was misleading because it counted the number of items sold rather than the amount of ivory exported. The Traffic study found that nearly all of the trade in ivory in the UK was in small antique items such as curios, souvenirs, and collectibles.
Instead, Traffic has found that the demand in Asia is what is driving poaching and that the Asian preference is for new ivory items. Thomas told The Art Newspaper that, “President Obama’s banning of the ivory trade in the US in 2014 was of much less consequence than the 2017 Chinese moratorium on the importation and working of ivory.”
However, the China moratorium has not been effective in stopping Chinese and other Asian demand (many Chinese do not even know about the ban), and raw ivory continues to be shipped directly to Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Japan to be worked and sold there. Last year, Traffic reported that lax enforcement in Japan and its largely unregulated domestic ivory market contributed to illegal trade. Tons of raw ivory are shipped out of Kenya and Sudan, and ivory is now being carved to suit Asian taste in Africa as well.
Thomas also encouraged legal sales by African governments of stockpiled and captured ivory rather than tusk-burnings. CITES currently oppose such sales, saying that it would encourage poaching, but Traffic found no link between legal sales and encouraging demand that would be fed by poachers. Thomas pointed out that Botswanna gathers 15 tons of tusks per year from natural elephant mortality and that other African nations could establish legal markets is they would follow and implement South African and other regional conservation models.
Dealer organizations in the UK have stressed that too broad new laws would harm British museums and seriously damage the antiques trade, a significant player in Britain’s overall economy. A British Museum spokesman stated in February 2016 that, “There is no public benefit in restricting the display or movement of ivory works of art made before 1947 and legislation should not extend to cover actions carried out before that date.
Anna Somers Cocks also points out the huge administrative burden the UK government and museums will have to take on in deciding what items may be acquired under the proposed UK law, which allows sales of worked, pre-1918, ivory items of “outstandingly high artistic, cultural or historical value.”
Public sentiment in the UK is strongly in favor doing whatever can be done to save elephants. Given the lateness of the hour and political sensitivity of the ivory issue, it is unlikely that there will be a radical reassessment of the need for legislation to ban antique ivory sales. Despite the Traffic report showing that it is unnecessary, legislation will probably pass – ending what could be a legitimate, controlled market, damaging the traditional British antique industry, making antique objects valueless and encouraging their neglect and destruction. It’s a sad case of an emotional argument trumping the facts.
For on update on ivory this search area on the New York Times is helpful: https://www.nytimes.com/topic/subject/ivory
For advice on what to do with your ivory, the best source is Fish and Wildlife: https://www.fws.gov/international/travel-and-trade/ivory-ban-questions-and-answers.html