U.S. Finally Gets Serious About Ending Ivory Trade

In a move widely praised by wildlife activists, the federal government has outlawed all commercial imports and almost all commercial exports of ivory.

 (Photo: Joe Amon/'The Denver Post' via Getty Images)

Feb 12, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Environment and wildlife intern Adam Andrus has written for Mongabay.com and recently graduated from San Diego State.

Well, it’s about time: The U.S. has brought the hammer down on nearly all forms of ivory trading within its borders.

As part of a sweeping new National Strategy on Wildlife Trafficking, which aims to prevent Africa’s elephants and rhinoceroses from being poached into extinction, the federal government has outlawed all commercial imports and almost all commercial exports of ivory.

Interstate ivory sales will now be limited to antiques, defined as being at least 100 years old. Intrastate sales will be prohibited unless a seller can demonstrate through documentation that ivory was legally imported before certain years: 1990 for African elephants and 1975 for Asian elephants.

Another big change is that U.S. hunters who travel to Africa to shoot and kill elephants will be limited to importing two dead elephants (and their ivory) a year. Now, there is no cap.

The U.S. is the world’s second-largest market, trailing only China, for illegal wildlife artifacts. While most ivory ends up in Asia, it is often processed stateside.

“The United States is addressing its own shortcoming with regard to regulation of wildlife trade and punitive legislation around wildlife crime, and, in so doing, helping to eliminate itself as a source, transit and destination for illegal wildlife products,” said Patrick Bergin, chief executive of the African Wildlife Foundation, in a statement.

The American initiative comes as the trade in ivory is decimating Africa’s elephants and rhinos.

Each year, poachers in Africa slaughter around 35,000 elephants, Earth’s largest land animal. The wild population has shrunk to just 400,000, down from the millions that roamed the continent’s forests and savannahs 100 years ago. Just this week, research out of central Africa found that between 2002 and 2013, 65 percent of forest elephants were killed.

The continent’s rhinos haven’t fared much better: Last year, more than 1,000 were killed, up from fewer than 100 a decade ago.

Driving the booming black market are the exorbitant prices many in East Asia are willing to pay for ivory: $1,500 per pound for elephant tusk and as high as $25,000 per pound for rhino horn.

"The entire world has a stake in protecting the world's iconic animals, and the United States is strongly committed to meeting its obligation," wrote President Obama in the letter announcing the plan.

The elephant in the room is whether China—which burned 12,000 pounds of confiscated ivory in January but has so far resisted calls from activists to ban the trade in ivory—will attempt to match, or even outdo, the U.S. crackdown.

The world is watching.