U.S. to Ban Commercial Trade of African Elephant Ivory

People in Times Square watched last year as officials with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service destroyed pieces of ivory. Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service will announce a near-total ban on the commercial trade of African elephant ivory on Thursday.

Under current guidelines, ivory can be sold if it was brought into the United States before it was listed as endangered or if the elephant died of natural causes, as long as there is documentation. The new rules will restrict those sales to genuine antiques, like ivory statues, artwork or chiseled chess pieces, that have been lawfully imported, as well as items like musical instruments that were made using less than 200 grams of ivory.

The new rules aim to curb the rampant slaughter of the endangered species, which experts say accounts for 96 elephant deaths a day, and severely restrict the African ivory market in the United States, the world’s second-largest consumer of illegally poached ivory.

“The people of the United States will be speaking loudly,” said Daniel M. Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, “and saying we value living elephants in the wild more than we value the creation and the trade of trinkets made from ivory.”

The new rules help fulfill President Obama’s 2013 executive order on combating wildlife trafficking in the United States, while lending resources to help stem the problem in other countries.

The rules limit the import of sport-hunted trophies to two per hunter, per year (down from unlimited trophies a year); prohibit the sale of ivory that was part of a move or household inheritance; and place prohibitions and restrictions on foreign commercial and noncommercial commerce.

Mr. Ashe and other wildlife advocates say the new rules will eliminate opportunities for traffickers to use the legal ivory markets as a cover for illegal imports.

Experts have long argued that the new revisions are necessary because it is difficult for the average consumer to distinguish legal from illegal ivory.

“That large fog of legal trade that has been concealing the illegal trade of ivory that continues to this day” will be removed, Mr. Ashe said.

One major exception to the rules will allow musicians to buy and sell instruments with small amounts of ivory, as well as carry them on international flights. The issue came up after a previous order from Mr. Ashe made it nearly impossible for musicians to travel with instruments that contained elephant ivory, because they were not able to obtain the proper permits.

“We are so pleased,” said Heather Noonan, the vice president for advocacy at the League of American Orchestras. “We’re particularly pleased that the rule confirms that domestic trade and international travel with existing musical instruments that contain small amounts of African elephant ivory aren’t contributing to the poaching crisis.”

In accordance with the rule-making process under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service opened the proposed changes for public comment, and it became the second-most-commented-on rule in the agency’s history. People wrote letters, children drew pictures and thousands of petition signatures rolled in — mostly in support of the more restrictive law.

The next phase of the fight against ivory poaching will happen next week, when a delegation from the United States goes to Beijing for a round of strategic and economic talks with Chinese officials, who have also agreed to further restrictions on the ivory trade.

For John F. Calvelli, the executive vice president for public affairs with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the action Thursday is the culmination of a three-year effort.

“We believe that today elephants are a little bit safer in the world,” he said.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com