With new U.S. ivory restrictions, the devil’s in the details


Ivory figure of an elephant trampling a tiger. Photo: Black Country Museums

Ivory figure of an elephant trampling a tiger. Photo: Black Country Museums

New rules came out last month from the U.S. Department of the Interior designed to help stomp out the illegal trade which led to the slaughter of an estimated 35,000 elephants in 2012 alone. Rhino are killed for their horns too and that’s also part of new crackdowns. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is implementing a major crackdown:

FWS will impose a ban on the commercial trade of elephant ivory within the United States, including resale and exports. Commercial elephant ivory in any form, including antiquities, can no longer be imported. Only items that can be proved to be antiques—more than 100 years old—will be allowed to be sold in the United States. The burden of proof will be on the seller.

Saving elephants and rhinos sounds like a laudable goal, doesn’t it? But like so many things, it’s complicated.

According to this article by Tom Mashberg in the New York Times (3/20) the devil is in the details:

New federal rules aimed at blocking the sale of ivory to protect endangered elephants are causing an uproar among musicians, antiques dealers, gun collectors and thousands of others whose ability to sell, repair or travel with legally acquired ivory objects will soon be prohibited.

Vince Gill, the guitarist and Grammy Award winner, who owns some 40 classic Martin guitars featuring ivory pegs and bridges, said he is worried now about taking his instruments overseas.

And that’s what makes this a “local” story. Where does old ivory lurk? You’d be surprised. (And good luck distinguishing between elephant ivory and other, still-legal inlay.)

The NYT article explores the many ways this may affect ivory collectors and people who have never intentionally bought ivory, but may own some even so. For years there’s been a rule that allows sale of ivory items at least 100 years old. But that’s about to be kneecapped by a catch-22, as examined in the Time’s article, by way of a hypothetical case: trying to sell an antique piano with ivory keys across state lines:

But the new regulations would prohibit such a sale unless the owner could prove the ivory in the keys had entered the country through one of 13 American ports authorized to sanction ivory goods.

Given that none of those entry points had such legal power until 1982, the regulations would make it virtually impossible to legitimize the piano’s ivory, the experts said. That predicament would apply to virtually all the antique ivory in the country, barring millions of Americans from ever selling items as innocuous as teacups, dice or fountain pens.

Does the destruction of such heirlooms bring any elephants back, or keep more from being killed?

I don’t think so, but let’s say the answer is yes. That turning ivory into toxic/forbidden contraband in the U.S. destroys the value of anything made with ivory in this country and drives down demand. (Sorry about that, all you musicians and such.) OK, but how does total devaluation of ivory in one country stop (already-illegal) poaching where elephants live, or end demand in other nations?

Is this a feel-good measure that presents the impression much is being done to stomp out the ivory trade while accomplishing little of the sort? I’ve read about other efforts to keep elephants from being killed for their ivory. Such as dying the tusks to make them unusable. Or sawing the tusks off in hopes the animal can escape poacher’s attention. (Poor elephants! Maimed and traumatized and perhaps still killed!)

Judging from the comments on the NYT article, most readers take he position that “we” (mostly meaning other people, evil enough to own blood-soaked ivory) should do anything that will save those intelligent and majestic animals.

But will this really save any?  (Not to mention the list of things we should all give up right away to save animals and the planet is very long.)

So, that’s one question: are these rules sensible, will they contribute to the end goal?

Meanwhile, debate may be moot at this point. In which case musicians especially best read up on the rules and be careful about what gets taken on trips. Crossing U.S. borders is about to get risky for anything that possibly contains ivory.

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60 Comments on “With new U.S. ivory restrictions, the devil’s in the details”

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  1. The Original Larry says:

    Yet another example of legislation gone wild. You cannot solve everything by passing a law against it, especially if you don’t think things all the way through first. Thanks to zealots who think they can permanently solve every problem RIGHT NOW through reactionary legislation, we live in a country choked by poorly thought out, Byzantine regulations that often contradict themselves and frequently cause more problems than solutions. But hey, if you’re not against all ivory trading than you are in favor of killing elephants, right?

  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Yes, poor us. We can’t trade ivory and people lose money. Sure wish I still had my elephant foot umbrella holder too because I’ll never be able to buy one legally again.

  3. Pete Klein says:

    Make the killing of Elephants and Rhinos for any reason other than flat out self-defense a capital crime with death or life in prison the punishment.

  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Whale oil was very valuable and an excellent lubricant and source of lamp oil. International legislation gone wild ruined our source of necessary whale oil.

  5. The Original Larry says:

    “International legislation” still hasn’t saved the whales as much as the development of crude oil as an alternative energy source.

  6. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Okay, it’s useless. Let’s just go out and shoot all the elephants and rhinos so that we can stop trying. It love lists, let me start a list of all the animals we should just kill because it is inconvenient to try to help them:
    Elephants, rhinos, tigers, lions, orangutans, whales, sharks, eagles of all kinds, tuna, dolphins, polar bears, musk oxen, wolves, giraffe, snow leopards, mountain gorillas…
    Anybody else got some animals they’d like to kill?

  7. Walker says:

    It certainly seems like badly crafted legislation. Several of the comments on the Times piece make some good points:

    What an incredible dilemma. If I had to choose between my bequest of ivory artifacts to my children and helping to save elephants from extinction I don’t know which I would choose. Actually, I do. Sorry for the inconvience and loss of money but I would choose the elephant every time. Hopefully future generations will know what elephants are, thanks to our immense sacrifice.


    I’m putting my money where my mouth is. As an owner and player of several high end acoustic guitars, I can tell you that ivory does not need to be used in an instrument. Period. There should be only one concern: Let’s stop the senseless slaughter now. In fact, as of this moment, I will boycott ANY luthier who uses ivory on their instruments.


    It’s simple enough to replace the ivory nut and saddle on an old Martin guitar with a nut and a saddle made from (cow) bone, and I’d suggest that Vince Gill and anyone else with a Martin guitar they might want to sell or take on their travels look into that. Replacing the nut and saddle would have zero impact on the price or marketability of a fine old Martin…

  8. Terry Smythe says:

    What ever became of the International CITES Agreement, within which there is a clause that exempts…”….anything worked prior to the signing of this Agreement (1978)?

  9. Thomas Wayne says:

    The greatest irony of all within the proposed ban is the so-called “fat-cat loophole”. The news hasn’t focused on this much, but one IMPORTANT clause in the new law would allow any American “hunter” to travel to Africa and slaughter up to TWO Elephants per year!

    Of course, you’ll have to be rich and powerful like the Obamas (Michelle Obama reportedly owns and regularly wears elephant ivory jewelry), or some fat-cat congressmen or Safari Club member or guys like that – AND you’ll have to pay hefty fees for USFWS permits to massacre those majestic adult Elephants and import their huge tusks back to the U.S. But hey, what’s $50k – $60k when you’re having fun slaughtering elephants?

    Meanwhile, an unaware/innocent American tourist visiting China could easily buy a tiny little Elephant ivory bracelet made of LEGAL ivory in the LEGAL Chinese carving market and get “caught” with it in her suitcase when she gets to U.S. Customs. At that point she would be facing as much as FIVE years in prison, and fines & “restitution” that could bankrupt her (literally). All this, even though the ivory SHE had came from the HUNDREDS of TONS of legal “natural death” ivory that falls to the African floor every year.

    That’s right, fellow citizen, a massive amount of ivory falls to the African floor every year, simply because Elephants don’t live forever. The African Elephant has a natural mortality rate of 4% – 7% per year, depending on their location – over the entire African continent it averages 5.5%. That amounts to about 25,500 Elephants that will die every year without a single one being “poached”.
    Since a large percentage of those natural deaths occur among older Elephants the bodies they leave behind will typically bear large tusks, and that “free” ivory does not rot or biodegrade. The estimates among experts in Elephants and the ivory trade put that annual amount of renewable ivory at no less than 100 TONS and as much as 900 TONS. That’s EVERY YEAR.

    If you really care about Elephants there are four VERY important questions you need to ask yourself, your friends, and your government:

    1) Why would the White House and USFWS be pushing a regulation to supposedly PREVENT Elephant deaths, but then sell permits to rich people allowing them to KILL Elephants… AND let them import the ivory back to the U.S.?

    2) With the U.S. deficit at $17.5 Trillion, and growing by $2.75 Billion every day, who will be funding the millions upon millions of dollars need to manage and protect African elephants in African nations so poor they can’t even afford to feed their own children?

    3) What should the world do with the hundreds of tons of ivory that fall to the African floor every year worth hundreds of millions of dollars, since it won’t rot and it doesn’t biodegrade?

    4) Why not use the perpetually renewable resource of natural death ivory to end poaching, fund Elephant protection and conservation, and feed and employ millions of starving Africans?

  10. jack steele says:

    I’m certainly against the slaughter of elephants for the current ivory trade. However, as a scrimshander I’ve been put in an untenable position. I have used pre 1976 elephant ivory in many pieces. Fortunately, most have been sold and are in collections. I still have raw pre 1976 ivory. Do I have documentation proving this? Of course not! I’m assuming that most/many artists don’t have receipts for every one of their purchases over the past 30 to 40 years. I also have on hand completed pieces using this elephant ivory. Selling them now would be almost impossible. The result no doubt will be that this new law, which has been formulated by government no-nothings, will cause an underground market. In addition, I work in fossil walrus ivory and mammoth ivory, both of which are legal. The agents who will police all of this probably can’t tell the difference between elephant ivory and the ancient ivories. Hell, they probably would look at a piece of cow bone and think it was elephant ivory! It appears to me that I either stop using anything except plastic or go completely underground.

  11. The Original Larry says:

    I’m happy to see that the Obama Administration has a strategy to prevent wildlife trafficking. Too bad they don’t also have a strategy for preserving Ukraine against Russian aggression.

  12. Walker says:

    What do you want him to do, Larry? Send in bombers? Troops? Drones? What’s your idea of a good strategy?

  13. Mark says:

    Jack, I’m with you. I’m also a scrimshander, and make a significant portion of my income this way. I use nearly all fossil ivories and warthog tusks, which are not restricted, but I use piano keys for pierced work and inlays, and pre-ban ivory for making custom grips for Marine officer swords. I will not be able to do this using ivory anymore. The USFWS should use a more measured approach, such as was used for whale teeth: After the 1974 ban on whale products, teeth could still be sold for 5 years within the US. After that a small number of permits were issued to legitimate shops that acted as a clearinghouse and link for scrimshanders and those that wanted to purchase and collect whale scrimshaw. Had they not done that, a black market would have developed around whale ivory. This WILL happen for elephant ivory under the current regulations which, by the way, have NOT gone through the legislative process. It has been done entirely by executive order and USFWS regulation, with little or no public input.

    I deplore the current level of elephant poaching and will never use black market ivory, but at the same time I am frightened by the rapidity and lack of forethought exhibited by these new regulations, which constitute a Fifth Amendment “taking” of private property without just compensation. It is our duty as Americans to fight these draconian regulations and find some other way to support the fight against elephant poaching. Prohibition of alcohol spurred the growth of organized crime and created an enforcement nightmare; prohibition of elephant ivory will do the same, only on a smaller scale. Have we not learned our lesson?

    Incidentally, it’s a little-known fact that NASA still uses sperm whale oil as a lubricant in its satellites, because no petroleum or synthetic lubricants remain liquid at very low temperatures while still doing their job at the high temperatures also found in space. Hmm…. where do they get it?

  14. The Original Larry says:

    Like all bullies, Putin is a keen assessor of weakness in potential opponents. He has read Obama like a large print book.

  15. Walker says:

    Ah, so your plan is that Obama should bluster and threaten?

  16. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Perhaps we should loosen rules affecting blood diamonds, too, because jewelers need to set gems.

  17. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Legal whale oil is available, but quite precious and supplies will dwindle over time. Same with ivory.

  18. Paul says:

    At least I learned a new word today – scrimshander.

    There were 35,000 elephants killed last year? I had no idea there were so many elephants. What is the estimated population?

    This from the WWF. It sounds like the animals can be protected if it is done properly:

    “Elephant numbers vary greatly over the 37 range states: some populations remain endangered, while others are now secure.

    For example, most countries in West Africa count their elephants in tens or hundreds, with animals scattered in small blocks of isolated forest; probably only three countries in this region have more than 1,000 animals.

    In contrast, elephant populations in southern Africa are large and expanding, with some 300,000 elephants now roaming across the sub-region.

    Significant elephant populations are now confined to well-protected areas. However, less than 20% of elephant range is under formal protection.”

  19. The Original Larry says:

    It’s not for me to suggest what Obama’s foreign policy plan should be; I only wish he had one instead of abrogating his responsibility as President. The weakness and indecision he showed vis-a-vis Iran, Israel, Benghazi and Syria has told Putin everything he needs to know about what he (Putin) can and cannot do. Oh, the unlearned lessons of history!

  20. Walker says:

    Lord save us from easy decisiveness! We’ve seen way too much of that of recent decades. (“Mission Accomplished” anyone?)

  21. The Original Larry says:

    We’re back to blaming Bush to cover up Obama’s failures? That’s all you’ve got?

  22. Walker says:

    Blaming Obama for not being a hot-headed bully is all you’ve got?

    I love the way conservatives all seem to think that Putin is the cat’s meow!

  23. Paul says:

    I thought this was about ivory?

    Since this is a blog I can pretend that I have a clue.

    On the Crimea thing I don’t think that you really need to do anything specifically you just need to posture like Putin is doing on the “new” border.

    Send NATO to Ukraine (and throw a few US aircraft carriers into the Mediterranean). Make it clear that is unacceptable. So far we have sent the signal that it is naughty but there will be no real consequences. Basically no signal at all.

    Being indecisive is as dangerous as being too sure about what to do. We can all agree on that.

    President Clinton’s S of State says it well here:


  24. mervel says:

    Ivory is the reason African elephants may go extinct. Sure their numbers are down due to habitat loss etc, however the actual reason that they may vanish is the trade and insane demand for ivory.

    This demand in large part is not coming from the US although sure it is good to push restrictions on ivory; but we need to look no further than the illegal drug trade to see how well legislating supply restrictions work In fact you can make a case that these restrictions will increase the price of Ivory as it becomes even more rare; which will in turn further fuel even MORE poaching to take advantage of the crazy prices.

    I have always wondered why Ivory could not be harvested at some level from elephants, while keeping them alive? Certainly it would not be easy and likely have some negative impact on herds, but it would be better than the current slaughter. We can de-horn cattle, we have successfully produced a market for american Bison etc.

    If you could raise and cultivate elephants and rhino’s you could flood the market with ivory, bring down the price, give people the incentive to keep the herds alive and thriving.

  25. Paul says:

    Elephants apparently have lost 80% of their habitat in Africa. The ivory trade just makes a desperate situation worse. Mervel it sounds like there is a fairly large amount of ivory that could be collected in Africa each year just from Elephants that die naturally. But apparently that is not enough to fill the demand. Restrictions in China will have some impact.

  26. mervel says:

    I don’t think we will ever be able to effectively reduce the demand from China for all of this ivory and Rhino tusks its just too large. We can’t figure out how to reduce the demand for heroin in the US and heroin kills you; just imagine how hard it would be to reduce the demand for something that hundreds of millions of people in China believe is an aphrodisiac. As long as the demand exists the poaching will continue until they are all gone.

  27. mervel says:

    From what I have read yes habitat loss is a really big deal but poaching is what is and will cause the extinctions.

    Its interesting about the ivory on the ground I guess that would be what we would call shed, like when moose or elk lose their horns (which is indeed gathered and sold in the US).

    What saved the Bison was having commercially viable herds. I think they are instructive; at least 80% or more of their native habitat is gone, they can no longer roam from Montana to Texas; however they were brought back from the brink through conservation and now are thriving due to he demand for buffalo.

    But they of course will never roam as they once did migrating throughout the great plains.

  28. Walker says:

    “Albright also said there is a need for military intervention, although not necessarily by sending in troops.

    “When people talk about military force, they always think boots on the ground. And there are obviously other ways to think about military force,” Albright said. “I do think that NATO, and through a variety of exercises and support, I think that there is a way that that tool has to also be on the table. And vigilance.”

    I don’t think Putin is stupid enough to think that “a variety of exercises and support” and a bit of “vigilance” would really signal a readiness on our part to actually engage Russia in a war over the Ukraine. Do you?

  29. myown says:

    Both Kerry and McCain were advocating the overthrow of the democratically elected President of Ukraine. Why? Because the Ukraine turned down an offer an offer of funds from the International Monetary Fund. The IMF was ready to prop up Ukraine but the terms were unacceptable. The IMF wanted Ukraine to employ austerity measures that have failed elsewhere. In addition, many of Ukraine’s natural resources would have been sold to western corporations like Exxon and Cargill. Putin made a better offer and the western elite corporate powers were offended. So what is the US response – advocate regime change and the hell with democracy.

    And like so often in the past, there are unintended consequences to overthrowing a government. Like having a majority of voters in Crimea decide to become part of Russia. I bet Kerry and McCain didn’t see that coming. (In 1954 Crimea was split from Russia to become part of Ukraine so it is not a surprise). So now the US is opposed to two democratically decided decisions. So much for our faith in democracy. It exposes the hypocrisy of our government and a foreign policy that functions primarily to obtain benefits for large corporations.

  30. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I guess that since we have been talking about endangered species and elephants it was a natural segue to talking about Republicans and ideas about foreign policy that are stuck in the Ice Age. Just as with the thawing of the tundra due to Climate Change/Global Warming mammoths emerge from the ground, so too the Neo Con agenda rears it’s mouldering head.

  31. The Original Larry says:

    What foreign policy is stuck in the Ice Age? The policy that says dictators shouldn’t be allowed to re-build empires? Maybe the policy that denies our sworn enemies nuclear weapons? How about the one that says you shouldn’t murder diplomats? Please! Obama doesn’t have a foreign policy, unless doing nothing while this string of disasters unfold counts as an actual policy.

  32. Walker says:

    You still haven’t said what you think Obama should actually do, Larry.

  33. The Original Larry says:

    At this point, I doubt he can walk back the cat. Going forward, he should try to develop a plan that protects Americans and our national interests. Sound simplistic? It is. Given his abject failure to do so, simple woukld be huge improvement.

  34. Walker says:

    Yes, Larry, it sounds very simplistic to me, as does the claim of abject failure. Abject failure to do what, exactly?

  35. mervel says:

    The first thing we should do is assure, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Moldova, that NATO would act militarily to defend them if Russia rolls in, which is not crazy. If Russia does take the rest of the Ukraine which is I think a 50/50 proposition they will likely take Moldova. At that point the Baltic states would feel very very vulnerable, however as part of NATO they have article 5, an attack on one is an attack on all and it would trigger war.

    I mean a ground war in Europe sure sounds like the ice age, but I fear it is not.

  36. mervel says:

    But the difference I think is that Russia is not the Soviet Union, they care about their bank account, they care about protecting their elite rich. I think severe economic sanctions would work.

  37. Walker says:

    Call me crazy, but I do think that the prospect of Russia attacking Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Moldova is non existent.

  38. Mark says:

    Why don’t we encourage Putin to attack China? A few million dead Chinese would go a long ways toward decreasing the demand for poached ivory, putting the poachers out of business. By redirecting Putin’s aim, we could kill several birds with one stone…

    Seriously, though, this blog is about the proposed restrictions on ivory in the US, not foreign policy. Take your discussions elsewhere.

  39. Walker says:

    It was Larry who brought the Ukraine into this, March 24, 2014 at 3:52 pm. He still hasn’t told us what he thinks Obama has failed to do.

  40. The Original Larry says:

    If history teaches us anything, it is that the non-existent can quickly become reality. The entire 20th century (and the 21st century, so far) was shaped by unimaginable events that overtook people’s ability to comprehend them. The idea that the threat of Russian aggression is “non-existent” beggars description.

  41. mervel says:

    Mark is right.

    The whole bizarre trade in exotic animals, exotic animal parts including Ivory I think really has to be taken more seriously by more people.

    To me these sorts of things are driven by demand; we may be able to reduce the demand for ivory over the long run; but it seems that in the short run we are going to have to look for other solutions. This is one area where I think the US can take a lead, we are not on the whole big importers of illegal ivory and illegal Rhino tusks, yet I think we have the resources to really think of innovative solutions. I don’t think law enforcement is going to be a real solution.

  42. mervel says:

    I think the key is increasing supply. Really looking at Ivory and rhino tusks as very valuable export commodities. If African people on the ground are given true ownership of these valuable assets and given the tremendous profits which come from harvesting ivory and tusks; I think we would see an increase in habitat restoration and protection of these animals and an increase in the animal herds. You don’t kill your golden goose.

  43. mervel says:

    Instead of giving US hunters very expensive hunting licenses, let them buy a breeding pair of elephants to take back to Texas or Mexico and raise them for their ivory. Its how we took a 750 buffalo left in the whole world in 1900 living in the Dakota’s and Montana and ended up with over 350,000 today. Although even that is a joke compared to the 60,000,000 that once roamed.

  44. Paul says:

    Although Mark probably won’t allow it. I was glad to see that Putin and his friend Steven Segall are reviving some of the old soviet era exercise programs. This seems like a positive development:


  45. Paul says:

    It looks like it also a security and probably money issue. Areas like South Africa seem to be doing fine protecting elephants despite the demand.

  46. mervel says:

    What is South Africa doing?

  47. Walker says:

    Larry, you still haven’t told us what you think Obama has failed to do.

  48. Two Cents says:

    right now there is an American astronaut in a Soyuz capsule with a couple of Russians waiting to dock with the international space station, as soon as the crappy Russian booster rocket fires correctly.
    damn sub-grade whale oil….

    I’ve also noticed there’s a perfectly good river running down the middle of the ukrane that would make a perfect division between the European Russia and the Asian Russia. crimea wants out anyway let putin have the darn thing and lets move on to

    also, that’s a great tip about piano keys. taken a few to the dump myself, and never thought about scavenging the keys. too preoccupied with the sound boards.
    how many bridge pins, neck dots and nuts does it take to make an elephant tusk.
    I would be honored to have MY tusk used on a martin, after I died. now if there were only spruce and ebony worthy……
    lastly, destroying already harvested ivory, from poached sources, is only symbolic of utter disrespect for the death of the animal,
    dead is dead. all that would have supplied martin, Gibson, takamine, fender, washburn, epiphone, and everyone else who makes instruments enough ivory for how many years?
    bye the way, cow bone? how the hell did the cows draw the short straw?
    what would they say in india about that?

  49. Lucy Martin says:

    I think everyone reading this thread very much wants to end poaching and prevent elephants from being killed for their ivory. But what set of rules, if any, will best accomplish that goal?

    More on that question: New York Times op-ed (3/26) “The Wrong way to Protect Elephants”

  50. Two Cents says:

    the rule that provides a alternate means for a man to earn a living for his family and his existence.
    I vote “farming”.
    “farm” everything and anything that doesn’t drive it into the dirt or out of existence.
    I am in no way a religious man, but if I were to believe in anything any of the bible like writings tell us it is we are stewards of this planet. by those means we have failed.
    why is it we can bomb a country into pulp, spending if nothing else trillions of dollars, why cant that money be spent preventing the root cause of the conflict– resources for all.
    could we have not irrigated the African deserts to the point that it would resemble Kansas, for the money we spent rebuilding infrastructure in countries that hate us?
    where are the scientists?
    weren’t they supposed to be solving all the worlds ills instead of baldness and erectile dysfunction?
    we grow a hydroponic potato in space but cant grow a crop of wheat in the sahara?

    don’t kill the elephants, harvest the corpses.
    the scarcity should provide a valuable asset to the scavenger.
    we trenched a canal across panama and the suez.
    how about a few water wells for starters. should be relatively easy comparatively. tell Monsanto and ADM to go to hades.
    after that we can get to work on finding the secrets to mankind prophesized entombed inside the sphinx, and for kicks and giggles the second one that is still buried, (yup there’s two), then work on that darn rail to trails project…….

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