A Win for African Elephants: New U.S. Ivory Trade Regulations

Obama announced new plans to halt interstate sales.

Elephants in Kenya's Samburu National Reserve. (Photo: G. Wright/Getty Images)

Jul 25, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

President Obama is cramming in a lot of work during his short trip in Kenya. Between attending a global entrepreneurship summit, visiting with family members, and speaking about gay rights, he revealed a new plan to help protect African elephants from poachers.

The White House will propose a federal law restricting the sale of nearly all ivory across U.S. state lines, Obama announced during a Nairobi press conference with Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta on Saturday.

The regulation comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recommendation that tightens the reins on transporting inherited items and ivory purchased after 1990 and prohibits transporting hunting trophies.

A few exceptions remain, including preexisting musical instruments, furniture, and firearms that contain a minimal amount of ivory.

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Despite the 1989 African Elephant Conservation Act, which bans imports of ivory, wildlife experts believe that a significant portion of ivory illegally enters the U.S. market for domestic trade. The illegal ivory business is worth between $17 billion and $20 billion annually, and the U.S. is the second-largest importer of ivory after China.

“Our trade and import of ivory is part of the demand that is driving the near-extermination of this species,” said Rhea Suh, president of the National Resources Defense Council, as she praised Obama’s proposal. Current penalties for those involved in illegal wildlife trade include a five-year prison sentence and fines up to $250,000 for an individual or $500,000 for an organization.

Until recently, an average of 96 elephants were killed every day at the hands of poachers—that figure is likely to have dropped slightly in recent months—with an estimated 100,000 elephants killed between 2010 and 2012. Without intervention, the African elephant could become extinct within the next 10 years.

“Restricting sales and helping to reduce demand is a critical part of the solution,” Suh said. “Though we still have plenty of work to do to protect elephants for good, these new regulations take us one step closer.”