Meet African Elephants’ Worst Nightmare: You

Poachers pushing elephants to extinction have found a lucrative market for illegal ivory in California.

(Photo: Gerard Sioen)

Jan 8, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

For a state that prides itself on leading the world in environmental regulations, California has missed the boat when it comes to preventing the illegal trade in ivory that is driving African elephants to extinction.

An investigation by the Natural Resources Defense Council has found that up to 90 percent of the ivory products sold in stores in Los Angeles are likely illegal, as are 80 percent of sales in San Francisco. That has helped make the United States the second-largest market for ivory products, behind China.

California merchants exploit a loophole in the state law that only allows the sale of so-called antique ivory imported before 1977.

Most of the jewelry and figurines sold as antique ivory today are made to look old but come from elephants that were killed recently in Africa, according to the NRDC report, which was released Wednesday.

Poachers slaughtered more than 100,000 elephants between 2010 and 2012, and biologists fear the species could be extinct within two decades.

“California has had an enforcement problem when it comes to ivory, and the current law is largely to blame for that, since it does not specify who should enforce the law, which has led to a lot of confusion and pretty minimal enforcement,” said Elly Pepper, an NRDC wildlife policy advocate.

NRDC unveiled the results of its investigation on the day California State Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins and state Sen. Ricardo Lara introduced A.B. 96, a bill that would close the loophole and ban the import, sale, and purchase of ivory. The only exceptions are if the ivory is used for limited scientific purposes or is part of a musical instrument.

The bill follows the lead of New York—the country’s largest ivory market—which banned ivory sales last August.

“With A.B. 96, Californians have the opportunity to protect the elephants and rhinos from poachers,” Pepper said.

Who buys all this ivory?

The No. 1 market for ivory doodads is China, along with Hong Kong and Thailand. The price for ivory tusks has tripled in recent years, making it a lucrative trade for poachers in Africa. It’s also the reason why so many Asian tourists frequent shops in California, where the same ivory products are often much cheaper.

“Even though ivory goes from Africa to China, where it’s carved, it’s cheaper in the U.S. than in Asia,” Pepper said. “And some people just don’t know or understand the crisis that elephants are in right now and how this ivory is obtained.”

One key finding in the NRDC report is even more alarming—California’s illegal ivory trade has doubled since 2006, when the report’s authors conducted their previous survey of U.S. ivory markets.

“If we are going to take other countries to task to stop wildlife trafficking, then we need to do it here at home,” Pepper said.