Hot off the Press, Wild Philanthropy

Banning the sale of legal ivory: the UK’s about to get in step – we hope

By | Tuesday, 27th February, 2018

With the UK set to host 2018 Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, I’m delighted to note that the government has finally bowed to pressure and authorised a consultation process last October for the banning of sales in UK of ivory. According to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, it is proposed that a total ban be ‘introduced on UK sales of ivory that could contribute either directly or indirectly to the continued poaching of elephants. The ban would prohibit UK sales of ivory, and the import and export of ivory for sale to and from the UK, subject to carefully defined exemptions.’  

The evidence gathered, the government’s set to publish a summary of responses by the end of March, a move which sees the government pick up the baton it quietly dropped in the run-up to last year’s snap elections. As noted last year on Journeys by Design’s blog, the UK’s been well behind the curve on the issue. China’s initiated a total ban, as has America, while Hong Kong has most recently pledged to introduce the ban over a five year cycle.  

Meanwhile, the UK’s one of a number of domestic markets that allows for the buying and selling of pre-1947 antique ivory, of 1947-1990 government-certified antique ivory, and of ivory sourced from legal stockpiles – that is, pre-1976 Asian ivory and pre-1990 African ivory. It is through this market, says Fauna and Flora International, that certain antique ivory products ‘can be legally re-exported internationally’ – so long as they possess the relevant CITES permits.  

Owing to its past, the sheer size of the British Empire, and its close relations with former colonies, the UK is by far the world’s largest exporter of legal ivory. It accounts for a third of the European Union’s total export, and dwarfs America, its nearest rival. This being the case, it’s legal ivory trade serves as the perfect both cover and fuel for illegal trade: between 2010 and 2015, the UK issued licences for the export of 36,000 legal ivory pieces; according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and in roughly the same period, of 2,843 illegal wildlife products seized in Britain, at least 1,165 were ivory products.  

Evidence of the relationship between legal and illegal ivory can be found on the internet, where hardly any ivory is sold on the darknet, which is unusual, given that illegal wildlife trade is the fourth most lucrative criminal activity, after drugs, guns and human trafficking. The reason, however, is clear enough: it’s all hiding in almost plain sight on auction sites like eBay, trading under the cover of legal ivory, and through the use of a secret parlance among traders.           

Fortunately, with China and Hong Kong having initiated their bans, the UK’s principle markets for legal ivory exports are dead and dying, the loss weakening the lobbying power of the likes of the British Antiques Association, which may or may not explain why we’re where we are today, the government back on the ban-all-ivory-trade track. Just as important will be the fact that it is hosting this year’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, which promises, I’m told, to be an extremely important one, and will no doubt exercise greater pressure on those markets in which it is still possible to sell legal ivory. It’s not the whole answer, but in a world in which an elephant is being killed every 25 minutes, and in which it is predicted that there will be no wild elephants left by 2025, it’s a step in the right direction.