A tiny British company is trying to undo the country’s landmark law on elephant ivory

An adult and baby elephant in Zimbabwe
Tracy Keeling

There aren’t many policies and laws that come from the British parliament these days that citizens can be proud of. In 2018, however, politicians of many stripes united around bringing in a stringent ban on the trade in elephant ivory. Given how dramatically populations of elephants and other magnificent wildlife species have fallen in recent decades, this is something everyone can get behind.

Well, everyone, that is, apart from those who profit from the trade in elephant ivory. People such as antique dealers. And indeed, a small cohort of them started a company called Friends of Antique Cultural Treasures (FACT) in March 2019. And FACT is heading to court on 24 February to try and undo the Ivory Act.

The Ivory Act

As The Canary previously reported, until fairly recently, the UK was a world leader in the trade in ivory. According to analysis by the Environmental Investigations Agency (EIA), traders in the UK sold 36,000 ivory items between 2010 and 2015. That made it the world’s largest ivory exporter.

The US was the second largest exporter. But it didn’t even come close to the UK’s count. In fact, the UK sold 370% more than the US, even though the latter country is many times larger than the former. Meanwhile, more than 13,000 of UK sales went to Hong Kong and China – countries notorious for the smuggling of illegal ivory.

But the UK government launched a consultation on ivory sales in 2017. Of the over 70,000 responses it received in that consultation, more than 88% favoured a ban.

Then, at the end of 2018, parliament passed the Ivory Act which made the ban law. It is still, however, waiting to come into effect.

But my trinkets!

Prior to the new ban, the UK had a partial ban on ivory. Under those rules, any ivory carved before 1976 was legal but needed a certificate, while ivory products manufactured before 1947 were also legal as long as the age could be confirmed.

The Ivory Act changed that. Under the new rules, the only exemptions to the ban are pre-1947 items with less than 10% of ivory, pre-1975 musical instruments containing less than 20% of ivory, and very rare items at least 100 years old with exemption permits and museum collections.

The antiques industry isn’t best pleased, even though the law isn’t as “draconian” as they feared. Furthermore, the EIA says that less than 1% of auction house sales each year are for ivory. Nonetheless, FACT, which was created to challenge the act and consists of “three members and directors [who] are dealers in and/or collectors of antique objects that include worked ivory” challenged the act in court in November 2019. As the EIA detailed, It argued that the ban was:

contrary to EU law and infringed their human rights to sell ivory.

FACT lost, although not without some sympathy for its case from the judge. It’s since appealed against the judgement, and the case will go before the Court of Appeal on 24 February.

Saving our natural heritage

EIA’s executive director Mary Rice commented on the case:

It would be a tragedy for endangered elephants in Africa and Asia if the UK Ivory Act were to be cut down at this final hurdle, not to mention a slap in the face for the vast majority of British citizens who quite clearly put elephant welfare far above the right to make money off blood ivory.

Our investigations have revealed time and again that parallel legal markets for ivory confuse consumers as to ivory’s acceptability as a commodity, stimulate new demand, provide a front behind which to launder poached ivory and ultimately drive the illegal ivory trade which has so devastated elephant populations.

It certainly would be a tragedy. A 2016 study counted only 352,271 African savannah elephants across 15 countries. It’s thought there are only around 40,000 Asian elephants left. The decline of both species can be attributed to humans. From poaching for ivory, trophy hunting for kicks, enslavement for entertainment, our interaction with these intelligent and ecologically vital creatures is devastating and inhumane.

It’s time countries started getting serious about protecting them. What a shameful legacy for the antique industry: trying to scupper the UK’s attempt to do exactly that.

Featured image via Sharp Photography/Wikimedia

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  • Show Comments
    1. Ahhh…Tracy and the great hunting trophy debate.
      The ivory ban, like most prohibitions, penalises legal hunters and hands the market to poachers.
      It sounds like a good idea, but it isn’t. In East Africa, a well-known country banned hunting and received accolades from anti-hunters. Wonderful, no more “white hunters”.
      The professional hunters went south to South Africa and Botswana. As soon as these witnesses were sent packing, 100,000 elephants “disappeared”, no doubt the ivory went to the Far East in anonymous containers.
      In the southern range states, elephants are a pest and eating the envoronment, causing starvation. But noboy has the guts to tell the truth…they need culling and the ivory sold to produce income for conservation.
      Be careful what you wish for.

      1. This article is about the ivory trade and it is a well-known fact that allowing any kind of legal ivory trade fuels the illegal ivory trade. Tracy nicely backed her stance with facts. Not sure why would that be seen as penalizing hunters.

        Hunters like to call themselves conservationists so I don’t see why would they want to bring home parts of dead animals anyway. Maybe to show their pals how they “conserved” them!? Well, that’s another story.

        It’s also really odd when any member of a species that objectively is the biggest pest to ever walk the earth, that in a very short time managed to bring thousands of species to the edge of extinction and ecosystems to the brink of collapse calls a species that struggles to survive a pest.

        That tells a lot about the twisted point of view we have of the natural world around us and is probably the cause of most of the problems we face as a species.

        We can and need to do better but commodifying living beings is definitely not the way.

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