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Amid elephant slaughter, ivory trade in US continues

Confiscated Elephant Ivory in U.S.

A photo made available 14 November 2013 shows confiscated ivory tusks, estimated by US wildlife officials to be from around 2,000 elephants, at the National Wildlife Property Repository, Denver, Colorado. Photograph: Alex Hofford/EPA


Powered by article titled “Amid elephant slaughter, ivory trade in US continues” was written by Adam Welz for Yale Environment 360, part of the Guardian Environment Network, for on Thursday 13th February 2014 16.33 UTC

On a cool, bright day last November, hundreds of journalists, environmentalists, and politicians gathered on the outskirts of Denver to watch U.S. officials drop almost six tons of contraband elephant ivory into a mobile-home-sized rock crusher. The rumbling machine soon reduced the raw tusks and tourist carvings into piles of pebbles and clouds of sour-tasting dust.

The ivory represented most of the U.S. government stockpile, and it had been seized from smugglers, tourists, and illegal sellers over the previous 25 years. Its dramatic destruction was designed to send the message that the U.S. was taking the lead in fighting the scourge of poaching, which now kills an estimated 35,000 of Africa’s elephants annually, about one-tenth the remaining population.

The “ivory crush” capped a year of strong rhetoric from U.S. government and conservation nonprofits that had framed the illegal killing of elephants as a threat to national security – ivory profits, the message has been, fund terror groups. The burgeoning demand for ivory in Asia was blamed for the upsurge in poaching, with China cited as the largest market, followed, most experts said, by Thailand and Vietnam.

Yet amid all the media coverage, little attention has been paid to the U.S.’s own trade in legal and illegal ivory, which experts say, trails only the very largest Asian markets. It’s legal to sell African elephant ivory imported before 1989 and Asian elephant ivory removed from the wild before 1976 within the U.S., and illegal sales regularly occur under cover of the legal market – a ton of illegal ivory was seized in a single raid on New York stores in 2011. Ivory in the U.S. is largely unmonitored, and the laws regulating it are antiquated, confusing, and shot through with loopholes. In addition, the agencies tasked with enforcing these laws are underfunded and chronically short-staffed.

If 2013 was a year of talking about ivory trafficking, conservationists hope that 2014 will be a year of action. This week, the Obama administration announced that it will change regulations in the coming months to ban interstate sales of all ivory except certified antiques; limit elephant trophy imports to two per hunter; cut off commercial imports of antique ivory; and increase certification requirements for the remaining trade.

While conservation groups are applauding these planned moves, they note that Congress needs to pass additional laws to increase penalties for violations and approve additional funding needed for enforcement. The U.S., conservationists say, still has a lot of work to do.

Edward Grace, deputy assistant director for law enforcement at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, calls the U.S. “a large consumer of ivory.” Although recent ivory seizures in Asia dwarf those made in the U.S., he says, “you can go into New York City, you can go into Washington D.C., you can go into San Francisco, and there’s ivory for sale.

“The price of [raw, uncarved] ivory ten years ago was less than $1,000 a pound,” but it now sells for “almost $1,500 a pound,” says Grace, which indicates steady or increasing demand.

In 1989 the U.S. enacted the African Elephant Conservation Act, which placed a moratorium on the import of most African elephant ivory. Under the terms of the act, ivory imported into the U.S. before 1989 – called ‘pre-ban’ ivory – is legal to own, use and sell. Ivory imported after the law went into effect is generally not legally saleable, unless it’s a worked antique item that is at least a hundred years old, in which case its sale is allowed under a so-called “antiques exemption.”

According to figures recently sourced from government agencies by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), more than 7,500 ivory carvings and 1,746 elephant trophies (with two tusks apiece) were legally imported into the U.S. between 2009 and 2012. Thousands more ivory pieces, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of loose tusks were legally imported during the same period. IFAW found that ivory valued at more than $1 million was available for sale via online auctions in a single month in 2013.

The fact that pre-ban and antique ivory is legally sold, generally without certification, presents a serious problem for law enforcement. Even with high-tech tools, there’s often no way to tell pre-ban from post-ban ivory, or a real antique from a new piece of ivory that’s been distressed or discolored to look like an antique.


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