Hawaii Revealed as Major Market for Illicit Ivory

An investigation by conservation groups found that the Aloha State boasts the third-largest trade in elephant ivory in the U.S.
(Photo: Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Mar 9, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

An investigation by conservation organizations has found that Hawaii is the third-largest market for illegal ivory in the U.S., behind New York and California.

Over the course of six days, investigators located more than 4,600 items for sale from 47 online retailers. The items carried a combined price tag of $1.2 million. Although some of those goods were things such as carved walrus tusks, the majority were advertised as being elephant ivory. The illegal ivory trade is responsible for the plummet in African elephant populations in recent decades. Between 2010 and 2012, poachers killed 100,000 elephants for their ivory tusks.

Sellers identified during the investigation included retail stores (online and brick-and-mortar shops), as well as art galleries, artist associations, estate liquidators, auction sites, and individuals on Craigslist. Four of the largest retailers each had more than $100,000 worth of ivory in stock. One retailer had $574,000 worth of ivory products for sale.

Most if not all of this activity was likely illegal, according to the investigation. The sale of ivory is highly regulated in the United States. Under regulations passed two years ago, only the sale of antique ivory certified as having been imported prior to 1976 is allowed. The research revealed that just one of the Hawaiian retailers offered the required documentation and suggested that these documents are all too easy to fake.

“The new results were definitely surprising but in retrospect maybe shouldn’t have been,” said Peter LaFontaine, campaigns manager for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, one of the four conservation groups responsible for the probe. “It makes sense that Hawaii would be a big market for these products. Millions of Asian and American tourists visit every year, and it’s a prominent stop for air and sea traffic.”

According to the report, dozens of flights and ships arrive in Hawaii from the Asia Pacific region every day, making it easy to smuggle ivory into the state.

In addition, LaFontaine said that “authorities have only recently begun to crack down on ivory trafficking” and the new federal protections have not necessarily created progress on the state level.

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That could change. A bill to ban the trade in products from elephants and a number of other wildlife species is making its way through the Hawaiian legislature. The state Senate passed the bill last month. The state’s Judiciary Committee approved it last week, and it now awaits a House vote.

Although previous bills to ban the sale of ivory in Hawaii have failed, this one appears to have greater support. “We are cautiously optimistic,” said Sara Marinello, executive director for government affairs for the Wildlife Conservation Society, another of the organizations behind the investigation. “Polls show over 80 percent of Hawaii residents support a state ivory ban. However, there is a very small but vocal group of ivory sellers spreading fear and misinformation,” she said. The National Rifle Association, for example, calls the legislation an attempt to take away people’s antique firearms.

LaFontaine said the new report may facilitate the passing of the bill. “We have been sharing the results with lawmakers and state agencies to help them understand the scope of ivory trade in Hawaii,” he said. “Fortunately, it’s helped to build the case that these bills are more than just symbolic, that they will address a very real problem in the state and ultimately help to reduce the amount of ivory trafficking there.”

New York and California have banned ivory sales. While it’s too early to say how effective those regulations have been, Marinello said that “the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has seen anecdotal evidence of less ivory in the marketplace.” She added that some stores still appear to be selling illegal ivory, but the new ban will help in prosecutions.

LaFontaine said the bills are important because federal law has little control over ivory sales that do not cross state borders. “Ultimately, we need states to take action to close the big loophole that is intrastate trade,” he said.