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Saving the Elephants? State Bans on Ivory Trade Gather Steam

Richard Moller / TSAVO TRUST

New York’s new ban on the trade in elephant ivory was signed into law Tuesday — World Elephant Day — on the heels of a call by a major conservation group for a total global clampdown. But can such bans help save the world’s elephants from extinction?

The New York restrictions, signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, make it illegal to sell elephant and mammoth ivory or rhino horns within the state with only a few exceptions, such as for “antiques demonstrated to be at least 100 years old and containing only a small amount of ivory.” New Jersey’s even tougher ban was signed into law last week.

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The situation is dire, says John Calvelli, executive vice president for public affairs at the Wildlife Conservation Society. There were an estimated 1.2 million African elephants in 1980, but now the population is down to less than 420,000, the society estimates. For forest elephants, a separate species from the savannah elephant, the news is worse. Ten percent of the population was killed in 2012, and another 10 percent in 2013, the society says. With fewer than 100,000 left, extinction could be only 10 years away.

The society’s Dr. Liz Bennett proposes a complete ban on ivory sales, along with destruction of all ivory stockpiles, as the only solution. In a peer-reviewed essay published last week (abstract) in the journal Conservation Biology, she wrote that because of corruption and other difficulties, maintaining a legal trade that doesn’t deplete wild herds is impossible to set up and enforce. “If we are to conserve remaining wild populations, we must close all markets,” she wrote.

Calvelli said Tuesday that could take the form of a permanent ban or a long moratorium, say 10 years, depending on the country. African nations with large tourism economies could be especially hurt if elephants disappear, he said. “They realize this will have a real impact for them if this slide should continue.”

A big question is whether newly affluent Asian countries with strong markets for ivory would sign on to a ban. Last month, Save the Elephants said that prices for ivory in China have tripled since 2010, helping to drive poaching in Africa. China has also been called the largest market for illegal ivory, despite a ban on exports of ivory products and controls on the domestic trade. At a joint U.S.-China event in Beijing in July, Chinese officials pledged to help combat illegal trafficking in ivory, which Secretary of State John Kerry called “today’s blood diamond.”

Thailand is facing international sanctions if it doesn't begin regulating its ivory market by next year.

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Last year, Kerry offered a $1 million reward for tips leading to the disruption of a Laotian gang with affiliates in South Africa, Mozambique, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and China.

The U.S. government is moving toward stricter rules too. After making a series of steps earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it expects this summer to propose a prohibition on interstate commerce in African elephant ivory, new limits an already restricted exports and a limit on the number of African elephant ivory trophies that sport hunters can import.

After the success in New Jersey and New York, Calvelli said, the effort to enact state bans will focus on Illinois, Florida, California and Connecticut — states with large populations and ports. But it would be next year before any action could be taken.

In the meantime, the average person can help, he said. “Take the pledge that you’re not going to buy ivory. This would be a really good first step,” he said.

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