The United States has a problem with elephants. It’s not that we don’t like them, per se – it’s that we like the things made of them (ivory jewelry and carved statues, taxidermied trophies, and the like) far too much. Despite some older laws that restrict commerce in elephant parts, professional traffickers and American tourists have spent decades bringing illegal ivory across our borders, thousands of pieces every year, and, as a result, this country is partly to blame for the ongoing free-fall of African elephant numbers.
“Free-fall” is no exaggeration: poachers shot 100,000 elephants between 2010-2012 alone (about a quarter of the 420,000 total population) and scientists predict that some regional extinctions may occur in a decade. Making a bad situation even worse, organized criminal syndicates and militant groups play a growing role in the industrial-scale ivory trade.
In response to the crisis, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has proposed a “near total ban” on ivory sales, imports and exports (possession of ivory would remain completely legal), which has drawn the strong support of conservation groups, wildlife scientists and the overwhelming majority of Americans, nearly 80% of whom want to see this trade shut down in the US.
China (the world’s biggest ivory consumer) has signaled that it will act to restrict its own market, but that shift is widely believed to be contingent on moves from the U.S. and other major players, and a domestic ban here will give federal agencies the leverage they need to encourage China to keep its pledge.
But this is Washington, after all, and what might seem like a slam dunk outside the beltway starts to look like a half-court heave in D.C. – groups like the National Rifle Association (“They’re coming for your ivory-handled guns!”) are lobbying hard for Congressional intervention, and have been obliged by the likes of Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration Authorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate The Republicans' deep dive into nativism MORE (R-Tenn.) and of course Rep. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungRepublicans are the 21st-century Know-Nothing Party OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden suspends Arctic oil leases issued under Trump | Experts warn US needs to better prepare for hurricane season | Progressives set sights on Civilian Climate Corps Overnight Energy: Biden admin backs Trump approval of major Alaska drilling project | Senate Republicans pitch 8 billion for infrastructure | EPA to revise Trump rule limiting state authority to block pipelines MORE (R-Alaska). This is despite good-faith efforts by the FWS to exempt from the restrictions bona fide antiques and certain newer items with a small amount of ivory, providing they were imported legally in the first place.
The new proposal isn’t perfect. Law enforcement officers say that a full ban – no ivory sales exemptions at all – would be easier to enforce and would discourage illegal trafficking. The FWS rules have a uncertain impact on sales of ivory that don’t cross state borders. And on the heels of the media firestorm around the shooting of Cecil the lion, a lot of folks were surprised to learn that American hunters import about 750 elephant trophies annually – that’s almost half of all elephants killed for sport; the new rule, unfortunately, would barely make a dent in that status quo, “restricting” trophy imports to two elephants per hunter per year. But on the whole, the proposal is far better than the confusing and broken system it would replace.
Elephants need their tusks. We don’t. This is an easy call – we need to move ahead with a ban on the U,S. ivory trade.
Peter LaFontaine is a campaigns officer with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).