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. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Lucy, I understand complexity of the issue. I am actually not opposed to the idea that a small number of permits be allowed for big game hunters to “take” a small number of carefully selected elephants (at a very high price) in a scheme that would provide money for local Africans and for animal protection. I have heard the arguments that the market should be flooded with ivory in order to drive the price down – maybe it could work. What frustrates me is that there needs to be a plan and everyone needs to get on board – even if it is the wrong plan! – because the important part is that everyone is on board. If we are all working toward the same end there is some chance of saving elephants, et al. But if everyone is split into narrow interests with dozens of separate plans the slaughter will continue and elephants will cease to exist, even if everyone claims to be trying to save them.

  2. Two Cents says:

    flooding the market and driving the price down is the complete opposite of what would help the ivory harvesters.
    poaching is illegal by the very definition of the word. the price should not be driven low to discourage them, it will not. it would make them poach more to make up for the losses.
    the careful and selective harvest you mention is right on- but not by big walleted big game hunters.
    all ivory harvest should be done by a system within the local African communities where the ‘phants live and roam. THEY should be the only allowed harvesters, keeping the product rare, expensive and the profits high to support their community.
    ….add keeping the animals in the high esteemed rank of respected living things by the fact it would be nearly impossible for anyone other than an African to control, sell, harvest ivory.
    that would empower both the African, and the elephant.
    of course the Asian scenario would work under the same guidelines….

  3. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Two Cents, I don’t care what scheme is put in place so long as something is done with everyone on board working hard to end the slaughter. Nobody needs ivory. Nobody. Except for elephants.

  4. Lucy Martin says:

    Well, it’s better when rules actually make sense.

    Otherwise we end up in “Yes Minister” territory. (A wickedly funny British TV series that lampooned politics, also seen on PBS in the U.S.)

    “Politician’s logic:
    We must do something.
    This is something.
    Therefore we must do it.”

  5. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Consider a tug of war. Antagonism gets everyone nowhere. But if everyone holds the rope and goes in the same direction there is a chance to turn around if the direction seems wrong.

  6. mervel says:

    Yes having one plan would be good, but its a complex multinational global issue, with demand flowing from China and the far east and supply from Africa and a bunch of middle men in between.

    Everyone gains except of course the elephants and our world. Lets say American Bison horns suddenly became very valuable, well we would not see poaching on a grand scale because in the US buffalo are now largely owned by ranchers, who would have a vested interest in harvesting those horns and protecting their herds.

    I think law enforcement is important and needed. The key to me is working with China to either reduce demand or to meet that demand in a way that does not destroy the elephant and rhino herds still left.

  7. Paul says:

    Mervel, I think that security is the key. The bison slaughter you describe here would not happen because we have security. People tend to want to do the wrong thing. That is why we have 30,000 police in NYC and things are fairly secure. In South Africa it is relatively secure so there laws matter. In places where there is no security it doesn’t matter what the laws are or how severe the punishment is and there the elephants are dropping like flies. They have tried in some places to shoot poachers on site. Doesn’t work unless you have lots of guys out shooting poachers which the can’t afford. They know that the will usually get away with it so it is worth the risk.

    We thought that we could secure Iraq and Afghanistan with a few hundred thousand troops and that they can now do it with numbers like we have for cops in NYC (in Afghanistan!!!!). It took 6 million allied troops to secure Germany after WW2. 6 million!

    It is all about security. You can’t control this on the demand side. I wish we could.

  8. Two Cents says:

    there is a long list of what we don’t “need”
    except, I bet that list differs from person to person.
    who would you designate to compile a comprehensive single list of what people need.
    elephants don’t need the ivory when they’re dead. why could I not use it then and why cant I be trusted that that use, (need), would be my homage to the great beast

  9. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Paul, speaking of demand, has anyone discussed here the demand in China? It is something people have been working on – education of the newly wealthy Chinese – but it is likely not going to happen fast enough to save elephants or sharks or tigers or rhinos or…

    Two Cents, the list of what we really need is actually very short. Ivory isn’t on it.

  10. Two Cents says:

    according to you….

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