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Bills to Rein in U.S. Ivory Trade Have Mixed Results

As author and National Geographic contributor Laurel Neme writes this week, even sensemaking legislation aimed at saving imperiled wildlife by restricting the elephant ivory and rhino horn trade in the United States can fall victim to political reality.

Following successful efforts last year to effectively ban ivory and rhino horn commercial sales in New York and New Jersey — as well as new federal rules tightening the ivory trade — lawmakers across the country have proposed similar legislation for their respective states. Some bills are moving through the legislative process; others have been diluted or effectively killed, in part by well-funded opposition from the gun lobby.

Leigislators in states such as California are seeking to close loopholes to existing ivory laws that have made it impossible to effectively enforce what’s already on the books. For example, under current California law, ivory imported into the state prior to June 1, 1977 can be sold legally. But criminals have long exploited the legal market to launder illegal ivory from poached elephants. According to a January report by the National Resources Defense Council, as much as 90% of ivory found in Los Angeles markets and approximately 80% of ivory items in San Francisco likely was illegal.

Though many bills before state legislatures are in flux, here's the current legislative landscape:

While the California bill, AB 96 (so titled because of the estimated 96 elephants killed each day for their tusks), cleared its first hurdle last month by passing out of its first committee hearing, the bill still faces what could be months of further legislative tests. WildAid is one of several coalition partners supporting AB 96, which would close the ivory sales loophole.

Among those testifying at the March 10 hearing in Sacramento was WildAid’s Peter Knights, who said that AB 96 “will make enforcement a far easier matter and send a clear signal to the rest of the world that ivory has no value here.” (Read Knights’ full committee testimony at the end of this post.)

Opponents to commercial ivory bans, both state and federal, include the National Rifle Association, which claims that such bans would effectively criminalize the sale of antique rifles with ivory inlay or other features. 

Read Neme’s full article for Nat Geo here.

 

WildAid CEO Peter Knights’ full testimony of support for California’s AB 96 before the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife, March 10, 2015:

Good morning Mr. Chair and Members of the Committee,

I am Peter Knights, CEO of WildAid, an international conservation organization based in San Francisco, and I am here to urge your support for Assembly Bill 96.

Since 1989 I have researched illegal wildlife trafficking, working in over 40 countries, from the African nations where the elephants are poached to the main markets in Asia where carvings and trinkets are sold. We are currently engaged in ivory and rhino horn demand reduction programs in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand and here in the US.

WildAid runs the world’s largest wildlife product demand reduction campaign in China, a key factor in reducing shark fin consumption by 50-70% in the last few years. Another important factor was that in 2011 California banned the trade and sale of shark fin. Where California leads, others follow, and swift passage of AB 96 would inspire others to follow on ivory and rhino horn, too.

Mr. Chair, this bill is very important in closing existing loopholes in California’s ban on ivory and rhino horn sales. The effect of ambiguous laws on poaching is well documented. In 1989, when ivory trade was partially legal, elephants were poached at the rate of 70,000 a year by some estimates. In response to a global outcry, the international ivory trade was banned, and many consumers bowed out. Ivory prices plummeted and poaching went down, not because of intensified anti-poaching activity, but due to diminished demand.

But the effort wasn't universal, and it wasn't sustained. In 2008, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species allowed a one-off sale of ivory to China, a move that reignited the market there, fueled by the country's growing affluence.

The easiest way to sell poached ivory is to launder it through “legal” channels, and sadly poaching has risen again to around 33,000 elephants a year. The proceeds are fueling corruption in Africa, organized crime, militias and even groups such as Boko Haram, the Lord’s Resistance Army and Al Shabaab.

Economic growth in Vietnam is having a similar effect on the rhino horn market. But with clear, strong, enforceable laws and public awareness it is a reversible situation.

California is believed to be the second-largest market for ivory in the US after New York. Despite current California law restricting ivory sales, the grandfathering in of pre-1977 ivory has made enforcement impossible and facilitated continued sale of ivory, contributing to poaching in other parts of the world. Banning sales and trade, as AB 96 would do, will make enforcement a far easier matter and send a clear signal to the rest of the world that ivory has no value here. The bill would also bring penalties up to date with the greatly inflated profits from ivory sales to be a real deterrent and more than just a cost of doing business.

Mr. Chair, New York and New Jersey have already taken the step of banning sales and these bills enjoyed complete bipartisan support – including enactment by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over the objection of the NRA. We hope we can replicate that dynamic here in Sacramento.

I am happy to answer any questions you may have and I urge your AYE vote on AB 96. Thank you.