A Near Complete Commercial Trade Ban on Ivory in the United States

ivory crush
Ivory Crush at Times Square (photo from the Creative Commons)

It is estimated that one elephant is killed in Africa every 15 minutes, mostly conducted by militias and militants turning tusks into cash to be used for funding efforts towards destabilizing nations and looting them of their resources. Elephants could be extinct in a few decades at this pace.

Two years ago in Tanzania, President Obama announced an executive order to direct action and better organize the U.S. government’s efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. This week, he proposed a new rule that is a derivative of that prior declaration. So much will come of this including investment by the U.S. Agency for International Development in new programs across more than a dozen countries to help combat wildlife trafficking. Congress has called for a study on the link between poaching and terrorism, and the Department of Defense is now getting involved to track down terrorist poachers. Private donations are resulting in additional weapons and game wardens to help fight, throughout Africa, the militants that target and kill elephants for ivory to fund their activities. Botswana has banned all sport hunting of elephants, and has begun humane ecotourism development to support their economy.

When I posted on the Facebook page for my own blog, The Whisker Chronicles, the news of President Obama’s issuing of a proposed rule that will establish a near-complete ban on the commercial ivory trade in America, some readers posted compelling questions. What does a near-complete ban mean? Why is there not a complete ban?

Existing U.S. ivory regulations mostly concern the import and export of the material from the country, while allowing some legal trade of the material between states. The new regulation, which will be finalized later this year, would restrict interstate trade to antique items that are over 100 years old or contain a minimal amount of ivory. The proposed rule also contains new restrictions on the international trade.

Prior to this past Saturday’s announcement, many animal conservationists had argued that allowing some legal ivory trade provided a cover for criminals who were actually selling illegal ivory. Ivory has been part of an international commercial industry for items such as piano keys, dominoes, false teeth, billiard balls, along with a multitude of every day items for various purposes. Unfortunately, there are also a multitude of trinkets, carvings and adornments from an era of luxurious indulgences that gave no regard to the life taken for such purposeless things.

Much of the world is no longer willing to participate in or tolerate this behavior. It is challenging and sometimes impractical to gather up every antique ivory item created decades ago or to spend resources to punish those long in possession of ivory items, however acquired. Now even antique dealers will be under more scrutiny. In a 2009 investigation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials seized more than a ton of ivory from a Philadelphia art store that had been manipulated to appear old enough to meet federal standards. Ivory from that seizure was destroyed at an “ivory crush” event in Times Square last month. For a full explanation of the changes, visit The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Proposed Revisions document.

Personally, I have legally handled ivory and other animal parts that are banned for commercial trade in various roles as a zoo keeper, aquarist and zoo volunteer. There are certain exceptions to the laws about possession when items such as ivory were not illegally obtained and will not be sold for commercial gain but will be used for scientific education. Even then, those possessors are merely being allowed to hold the items which really are property of the U.S. Government and can be seized at any time. The ivory I handled was the end of a tusk that had broken off naturally from a young, healthy elephant that lived in the zoo. There was nothing nefarious about it. But the looks on the faces of the kids that got to touch a real elephant tusk while looking out on exhibit at the elephant it once was attached to was priceless. I doubt that any of those kids started thinking about how to make money from that tusk.

Little Diamond at the North Carolina Zoological Park (Photo courtesy of NC Zoo)
Little Diamond at the North Carolina Zoological Park (Photo courtesy of NC Zoo)

6 thoughts on “A Near Complete Commercial Trade Ban on Ivory in the United States

  1. Thank you for this valuable update that explains the ins and outs of the new development. My adopted hometown gives me some perspective on humankind’s role in the ivory trade, then and now.
    Piano Works is a landmark building in our town of Deep River, Connecticut. It’s a handsome, four-story brick condominium complex that spans most of a Main Street block. Across the street from the Works is the Ivory Restaurant, and around the corner is what was once called the Piano Action building, a short stroll from Keyboard Pond.
    Anyone taking in all of these names can probably deduce that Deep River’s claim to fame was once piano keyboards. Elephant tusks came in by ship and rail, and the industry boomed until, gradually, pianos became less of a “necessity” for the average household and radios and record players crowded them out of our living rooms. Of course, trading in ivory was banned internationally in 1989.
    Elephants are again becoming a prominent player in Deep River. The Rotary Club placed a bronze elephant statue in front of Town Hall, with a plaque commemorating the slain elephants—up to 100,000 killed per year—on which our town was, shamefully,built. Local families are acting as financial “foster parents” for baby elephants who have been orphaned because of poaching, through the David Sheldrake Wildlife Trust, a Kenyan group. The Historical Society also owns a piano with real ivory keys. Now, when visitors walk through, their murmurs seem to imply, “A piano with real ivory, made from real elephants—can you imagine such a thing was once commonplace?” Our little town has come a long way.
    Katherine, http://www.fpnaturalist.com

  2. Now that is truly a positive story of the environment. Thank you for sharing that, Katherine. I love the quote from Maya Angelou “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

    1. Thank you for sharing that inspiring information. Each country has to be the first line of defense in protecting wildlife, do they not? Here in the U.S., our bears are victim to international trade because of the incorrect beliefs that their body parts aid in health. It is my hope that our government will do a better job preventing export and therefore deter the poachers.

      Elephants are among my favorite animals. My heart is with you, your country and your magnificent wildlife.

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