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Crushing our love of ivory

Elephant ivory has been exported from Africa and Asia for millennia with records going back to the 14th century BCE. During the 18th & 19th centuries, ivory decorative objects were popular souvenirs and used as luxury embellishments in antiques, furniture, musical instruments, figurines, fine art carvings, and jewelry, among other objects. Over the centuries, an untold number of these items made their way into museums and private collections and can be found on display in homes around the world, valued for their beauty, durability, and craftsmanship.

What was once a thing of beauty, however, is now the subject of worldwide concern as the inhumane slaughter of thousands of elephants a year for their tusks threatens the very survival of this iconic species.
According to John Calvelli of the Wildlife Conservation Society, each year an estimated 20,000 African elephants worldwide are illegally killed for their tusks, representing the slaughtering of herds and orphaning babies in pursuit of a trade estimated to be $23 billion globally per year, according to WildAid.

According to the Kenya Elephant Forum Factsheet, the African elephant population was estimated in 1979 to be around 1.3 million in 37 range states but by 1989, only 600,000 remained. Although many ivory traders repeatedly claimed that the problem was habitat loss, it became glaringly clear that the threat was primarily the international ivory trade. With ivory selling for approximately $3,300 per pound, poachers have plenty of motivation to continue killing elephants for their tusks, despite a concerted effort by countries around the work to curtail the trade through fines, bans, regulations, and activism.

The United States and many other countries have allowed people to buy and sell ivory domestically subject to certain regulations that gave smugglers loopholes but in 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service instituted a near-total ban on the domestic commercial ivory trade and barred sales across state lines to try and stop the African elephant poaching crisis. The United Kingdom, Singapore, Hong Kong, and other elephant ivory markets followed suit. Most significantly, China took the remarkable step of closing its legal domestic ivory market at the end of 2017. Other Asian countries with open elephant ivory trade are now also under substantial pressure to act.

Activists say one of the most effective ways to ensure that the ban is successful is to eliminate consumer demand for elephant ivory and black-market sales by devaluing ivory art and objects and creating a new social norm that buying illegal elephant ivory products is socially unacceptable. One of the most public displays of this message is Ivory Crush events, designed to demonstrate a commitment to ‘crushing’ the illegal ivory trade by showing that ivory no longer has value.

In 2017, an Ivory Crush event was held in New York City’s Central Park, hosted by the Wildlife Conservation Society, DEC, and the jeweler Tiffany and Co. Nearly two tons of ivory tusks, trinkets, statues, jewelry, and other decorative items crafted from the tusks of hundreds of slaughtered elephants and confiscated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation during law enforcement actions were destroyed in a rock crusher in Central Park as the public and media looked on. It is estimated that collectively The Crush ground $8.5 million worth of items into dust, including one netsuke depicting three men with a fish estimated at $14,000, and a pair of elaborately carved ivory towers said to be worth $850,000. Say organizers, “No price justifies slaughtering elephants for their tusks.”

Wendy Hapgood, founder of Wild Tomorrow Fund, said crushing events send a signal to the world that “ivory shouldn’t be coveted, it should be destroyed. It belongs only on an elephant.”
For those choosing to keep their ivory items from the Crush or find a new buyer, here is what you should know about the current regulations and CITES (Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species). CITES is a global agreement among governments to regulate or ban international trade in species under threat:

• Under federal law, it is illegal to import any item containing African-elephant ivory for commercial purposes.
• Under federal law, new ivory cannot be imported, exported, or sold across state lines.
• Under Federal law, you can sell your African elephant ivory within your state (intrastate commerce) if you can demonstrate that your ivory was lawfully imported prior to the date that the African elephant was listed in CITES Appendix I (January 18, 1990). This documentation could be in the form of a CITES pre-Convention certificate, a datable photo, a dated letter or other document referring to the item, or other evidence.
• Fine art and antiques with ivory that are already in the United States can be sold domestically and exported only if there is documentation that verifies the ivory was harvested prior to 1976 or it was imported before 1976.
• The sale of African elephant ivory items across state lines (interstate commerce) is prohibited, except for items that qualify as ESA antiques (100 years or older) and certain manufactured or handcrafted items that contain a small (de minimis) amount of ivory and meet specific criteria.
• Antique ivory can be sold with proper documentation proving that the item is an antique that is at least 100 years old.
• Antiques containing Asian-elephant ivory can be sold within a state only if accompanied by CITES documents saying it was imported prior to 1975.
• You can sell across state lines only if the object has not been repaired or modified with ivory or any other part of a federally protected species (as defined by the Endangered Species Act) since 1973.

For more information and clarity, here are two resources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Endangered Species Act Overview and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).