The UK is now a world leader in one god-awful trade and it confirms our biggest fear about Brexit

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The UK is now a world leader in one god-awful trade and it confirms people’s worst fear about Brexit. According to the Environmental Investigations Agency (EIA) the UK is currently the world’s largest ivory exporter because it has sold much more [paywall] than any other country since 2010.

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 bigger than the former.

The EIA’s findings, however, address one important concern. Many suspect that post-Brexit the UK government will sacrifice much in pursuit of trade, such as the environment, food standards and so on. And that suspicion appears warranted because the government is already leading the way in lowering the bar in some areas.

But unfortunately, endangered elephants around the world are paying the price for that right now.

Sell, sell, sell!

According to the analysis, traders in the UK sold 36,000 [paywall] ivory items between 2010 and 2015. More than 13,000 of these sales went to Hong Kong and China; countries notorious for the smuggling of illegal ivory. Mary Rice, the Executive Director of the EIA, said:

UK ivory exports are stimulating consumer demand globally, especially in Hong Kong and China, two of the world’s largest markets for both legal and illegal ivory.

Currently, the UK has a partial ban on ivory. Any ivory carved before 1976 is legal but needs a certificate, while ivory products manufactured before 1947 are also legal as long as the age can be confirmed. But many argue that the legal ivory trade provides a cover for illegal ivory to reach the market. Because people can manipulate newer ivory to make it look older. A BBC investigation, in fact, found proof of such manipulation on the UK market.

Read on...

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The Tory government, under David Cameron, pledged to “press for a total ban on ivory sales” in 2015. But that promise was absent from Theresa May’s manifesto in the 2017 general election; the current government’s devotion to trade at all costs and the UK’s top place in the ivory market may explain why.

National shame

Now the scale of the UK’s involvement in the trade is apparent, the government is under pressure to take action. Rice has urged it to “stop issuing permits for all ivory exports with immediate effect”. In contrast, China and the US have respectively brought in a total ban and strict limitations on their domestic ivory trade.

Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder said the scale of the UK ivory trade “shames us all”. And with only 352,271 African savannah elephants counted across 15 countries for a 2016 study, she’s right. The UK government needed to act yesterday. But with poachers killing one more elephant every 15 minutes, the Tories can still act and help to save those elephants still left.


A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that ending the illegal ivory trade is “a priority for us”. And they claimed to have spent £26m since 2014 tackling “this insidious industry”. The UK government, the spokesperson insisted, will “continue our role as a global leader in the fight against the illegal ivory trade”.

The government has undoubtedly ploughed money into fighting poaching. As The Canary reported in July, British troops are currently stationed in Africa for that very purpose. But the very clear, simple way the government could help eradicate elephant slaughter is placing a total ban on the domestic ivory industry.

So why won’t it? Because it’s bad for antique dealers’ business. Sending troops to combat poaching is also ultimately bad for the ivory business. But it does put money in the pockets of the arms dealers who sell the government the resources our troops need for that mission.

With the government’s current approach to the ivory trade, it seems that someone’s always a winner; it’s just not these magnificent creatures. And until the government adopts a plan that ensures elephants are the victor, it deserves nothing but contempt.

Get Involved!

Write to your MP and urge them to back an ivory ban.

– Help save elephants with Action For Elephants UK.

Featured image via Karl-Ludwig Poggemann/Flickr

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