Conservationists are celebrating a huge win for elephants this week with an announcement from federal wildlife officials that they’ve finalized a near-total ban on the trade of ivory in the U.S.
With the exception of two government sales held in 1999 and 2008, the international trade in ivory has been banned since 1989. Unfortunately, demand for ivory has led to an increase in poaching and continues to threaten the future survival of vulnerable populations of elephants.
As we continue to hear stories about the senseless and brutal deaths of entire families, beloved individuals and the heartbroken orphans who are left behind, it’s become clear that elephants are in trouble. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), during a recent three-year period, an estimated 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory, which breaks down to an average of approximately one dying every 15 minutes.
While the demand in China is a driving force behind poaching, the U.S. is believed to be the second largest market for illegal ivory. Now, in an effort to combat the illegal trade and send a message to the world that we won’t be complicit in the rising death toll of these iconic creatures, the U.S. has taken a big step to shut the trade down.
On Thursday, the FWS announced that it has finalized a rule under the Endangered Species Act that will limit the import, export and interstate sales of ivory from African elephants, which aims to build on an Executive Order issued by the Obama Administration in 2013 to combat wildlife trafficking.
“Since we proposed this rule in 2015, we received more than 1.3 million comments from the public, demonstrating that Americans care deeply about elephants and overwhelmingly support African elephant conservation,” said FWS Director Dan Ashe.
Previously, ivory could be bought and sold domestically if it was imported before the international ban was put in place, which is known as ‘pre-ban’ ivory, but it’s difficult to tell the difference and that loophole has created confusion among consumers, problems with enforcement, and has provided a cover for the illegal trade.
Under the new rule, as of July 1, most trade in ivory will be prohibited with limited exceptions for certain verifiable antiques and other items that have less than 200 grams of ivory.
“Our actions close a major avenue to wildlife traffickers by removing the cover that legal ivory trade provides to the illegal trade. We still have much to do to save this species, but today is a good day for the African elephant,” said Ashe.
The new rule also limits the import of sport-hunted elephant trophies to two per hunter every year, which is still two, but there was no limit on how many could be killed and imported before this.
As the FWS notes, cracking down the trade in ivory won’t just benefit elephants, but will also cut funding to criminal networks and address the negative economic and social impact wildlife trafficking is having on us.
“We don’t often get to change American laws to help protect imperiled animals halfway across the globe, but today was one of those days. These new rules are a signal to Africa and the rest of the world that Americans accept and welcome our shared responsibility for protecting wildlife, wherever it may roam,” said Jeff Flocken, Regional Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Combined with state laws that have been enacted, or are in the works here, and efforts around the world to destroy ivory, close markets and end the demand, we’re coming closer to a world where we accept that every piece of ivory comes from a dead elephant, and none of it is worth the ultimate price being paid.