If you’ve heard anything about elephants and their ivory in the news lately, you’ve probably heard this question before. Maybe from friends or family, maybe from recent high-visibility articles and op eds — maybe you’ve even asked it yourself:
Sure, illegally poaching elephants for their ivory is terrible. But is antique ivory really that bad?
Hey, we get it. It’s a good question.
And we’ve got a good answer for you, too. (5 of them, in fact.)
But first, a little backstory. As we wrote last week, President Obama and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced a partial ban on commercial ivory imports, exports, and sales in the United States. (For a quick rundown of what the ban means for ivory owners, buyers, and sellers, check out IFAW’s easy-to-read overview.)
Among other things, the new rules have sparked an outraged backlash from people who make (or spend) a lot of money in the U.S. ivory industry — such as antiques dealers, auction houses, and collectors. They’re worried that the potentially millions of dollars that they’ve invested in antique ivory goods will become worthless.
Meanwhile, here at Elephants DC, we think the President’s rules haven’t gone far enough. Although they’re a fantastic start, there are still some key loopholes that allow ivory — even ivory from a recently killed endangered elephant — to enter the country and be bought and sold. We believe ivory’s only worth something to elephants. That’s why we’re launching a People’s Petition on May 1 calling for the President to end the ivory trade in the United States once and for all.
Of course, it’s one thing to oppose the illegal poaching of the few elephants remaining on our Earth (a number that’s getting smaller every day), and another to understand how antique ivory plays a role in all this.
As one antique dealer put it in a recent New York Times article (paraphrased), “We all want to save elephants,… but how will denying the sale of an 18th-century snuff bottle accomplish that end?” How does buying and selling objects taken from elephants long dead endanger elephants today?
Well, we’ve got 5 powerful answers for you, right here.
Reason #1: Unfortunately, it’s very easy to fake antique ivory.
Here’s the truth: although there are of course many genuinely old pieces of ivory out there, the label “antique ivory” has become a nefarious catch-all phrase that’s enabled countless tons of new illegal ivory to enter the U.S. market. Even though most ivory has technically been banned in the United States since 1989, antique ivory (or even just ivory from before 1989) was exempt. Poachers — and those who profit off of their poachings — quickly learned that a few easy chemical or cosmetic treatments could make ivory from an elephant killed yesterday look like it was killed years ago.
And they’re doing just that. A lot. For example, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official recently told NPR about a long-term investigation at one port that resulted in the seizure of more than a ton of smuggled African elephant ivory. The ivory in question “was pretty much all disguised to look like antique ivory.”
In other words, poachers have been using the “antique ivory” loophole in U.S. ivory policy for years as a way to smuggle and sell ivory from newly slaughtered endangered elephants.
And as if the idea that antique ivory can be faked wasn’t bad enough…
Reason #2: It’s also extremely difficult to determine the age of ivory pieces.
Yeah, it seems counterintuitive, but it’s unfortunately true. While it’s easy to fake the age of ivory, it’s conversely very difficult to figure out how old a piece of ivory is. Even seasoned antique specialists with 40 years in the business admit to being stumped when faced with the task of dating a piece of ivory.
Technology isn’t a great help here, either. As a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official told writer Adam Weltz,
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. Authorities can find it impossible to tell African elephant ivory from Asian elephant ivory, which is regulated under different laws, or from any number of other ivory-like substances: mammoth ivory, hippo teeth, walrus teeth, warthog tusks, and so on. Many times the only means of identifying specific types of ivory is via expensive, destructive lab tests.
If experts with special tools struggle — you can bet the same will be true tenfold for understaffed, overworked port inspectors. That’s another point scored for ivory smugglers right there, and another devastating loss for the elephants.
Reason #3: Shady sellers have shown no qualms about forging documentation about where a piece of ivory originated.
Antique ivory has also proven seriously problematic on the level of individual buyers and sellers. Regrettably, when the kind of money associated with ivory is involved, disreputable sellers will tell customers whatever they want to hear, even if it means lying about the age, source, or legality of their ivory. In addition to tons of anecdotal evidence, an investigation found that “ivory sellers frequently offered to provide fraudulent documents indicating that elephant ivory was mammoth ivory, that new ivory was old ivory, or that recently imported ivory was imported a long time ago.”
The situation has gotten so out of control that even the most conscientious of American consumers can’t have confidence in the reliability of ivory they buy here at home. Even documented antique ivory can’t be fully trusted. To use the words of a recent New York Times editorial, “Criminals who have killed these majestic animals and brought them illegally to market are unlikely to be worried about forging a few documents.” So why give them that opportunity?
Don’t blame the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for making it more difficult to buy and sell genuinely authentic antique ivory. Blame the poachers, the smugglers, and the shady sellers who have given us no choice but to close that loophole for good, for the elephants’ sake.
Reason #4: Antique ivory increases the demand for ivory in general.
If you’re starting to see a pattern here, you should. The antique ivory trade serves as the wildlife equivalent of money laundering — it makes it far too easy for illegal ivory to masquerade as legal ivory. Sure, you could argue that this isn’t the fault of antique ivory itself, but of a failed legal system.
But we also believe a key problem is that antique ivory is available for sale at all. As IFAW put it in their comprehensive ivory trade report, the antique ivory market “actually facilitates commerce in non-antique ivory.” As long as antique ivory is on sale and easy to get, people will want it. And where there’s a demand for ivory, sellers will rush to fill it. Poachers and smugglers will do their best to capitalize on that, and they will keep the ivory flowing… until there are no elephants left.
Demand for ivory fuels poachers. We need to do whatever we can to curb that demand here in the United States — the world’s second largest ivory market — and banning the ivory trade is an important step towards that goal. The time for ambiguity has passed.
This leads us into our final — and really, the most straightforward — answer.
Reason #5: Ivory belongs to elephants!
Yes, it really can be that simple. Seriously, we could discuss endlessly about the truly complex economic, political, and policy issues related to the illegal ivory trade — supply and demand, black markets, trade restrictions and their enforcement, international commerce, poverty, organized crime, you name it. And none of us may be entirely 100% right. (Although don’t take that to mean that there aren’t incredibly educated experts out there who are working tirelessly on these topics — because there are, and we thank them.)
But at the end of the day? Whether it happened 15 minutes ago or 150 years ago, an elephant died for that piece of ivory there. A highly intelligent and empathetic elephant — an elephant whose death was mourned by his or her family. Scientists are discovering truly amazing facts about elephants every day. (A recent favorite? Elephants can distinguish between different human languages.)
We’ve never been at a time like this in history before. Conservation experts around the globe have stated, unequivocally, that if the tide of illegal poaching isn’t stemmed, elephants could be extinct in the wild in as little as 10 years.
At Elephants DC, we’re calling for a total ivory trade ban in the United States because we can’t imagine the idea of our children and their children living in a world without elephants.
Is a total ban here in the United States enough to save the elephants? No, of course not — it’s just one piece in a larger puzzle.
But it’s a critical piece. It’s an important piece. Ivory belongs to elephants, and it’s high time we acknowledge that completely here in the United States now. Now, while we — and the elephants — still have a chance.