Twitter LinkedIn

World Wildlife Day - An Opportunity to Save Elephants

World Wildlife Day is an opportunity to remember the elephants who are dying around the world for their tusks, and to push for a domestic ivory ban that will help end the slaughter and send a clear message to other countries. We can no longer allow the trade in ivory to continue if we want to save this iconic species from potential extinction. But the devil will be in the detail, and this is where the hard work will be involved to reach a consensus that everyone can get behind.

After the long and winding road of two Conservative Party Manifesto commitments, we are nearly there – the long-awaited UK ivory trade ban is in sight.

As many of us know, the UK Government is “shortly” going to start a consultation on a domestic ivory ban and I am sure we will hear heated representations from all sides involved in the debate. Recent media coverage has tried to polarise the debate, so we need to push for sensible, measured discussions in order to reach a working deal that will make a meaningful impact and be enforceable.

So what might a future ban look like? We believe the Government consultation will propose a ban on all post-1947 ivory items as a first step towards a total ban. They have indicated that there will be a section for additional measures for all respondents to add other areas they would like to see included.

The issue that I and many others have is that an arbitrary date makes any legislation difficult to police and enforce. Going down a self- certifying route and allowing the sale of ivory to continue with limited regulation will not send the strong political message around the world that we want. How can the UK Government hold its head up and request other countries should close their own domestic ivory markets when we are not prepared to decisively close our own?

Another issue is that many ivory items often come on to the open market via antique dealers or through auction houses via house clearances. There is often no proof of purchase or date, no paperwork or provenance and we cannot expect every antique dealer to be an ivory expert.

What I am proposing is a pragmatic solution that will work for all sides. For a start – and contrary to some misleading stories in the press recently - there would be no requirement for any item to be destroyed. Family heirlooms could still be passed down or given to museums, but just not bought or sold for profit.

Some of the exemptions that I would propose would cover museum exhibits and items of significant historical importance which are made from ivory. Museums should be allowed to swap, exchange and move items across borders and exhibits from one country to another with the right paperwork. Should a rare item come on to the market from another country, there should be a way that certain items can be secured for the nation or a collection that keeps items of significant historical importance safe for posterity.

There is also a separate category of items which may contain ivory or have been painted on ivory which need to be considered in any future exemption or ban. I would propose an exemption on antique miniatures painted on ivory, as these are about the paintings and frames, are easily dateable by experts and do not glorify ivory. It would be easy for an expert to spot a fake miniature. Similarly, if a piece of Chippendale furniture contains a small ivory inlay from the 1700s, the value is derived from the furniture and the maker rather than the ivory. Moreover, it would be extremely difficult to disguise modern ivory in such items.

Saying that, there should be a limit on how far these exemptions go. Furniture which glorifies ivory should not be allowed to be sold, so I would propose an exemption only for items where less than 5% of the volume of the furniture is ivory.

Musical instruments would be another area for exemption. No new instruments have been made with ivory in the past 40 years, but there are older and rarer instruments which sometimes have a small amount of ivory, such as on violin bows or piano keys. The US ban has a good exemption clause that works for musicians. It allows musical instruments to be transported across borders, and for to be bought and sold with certification. Any modern ivory-containing instruments made since the ivory ban would not be allowed to be sold.

My last and perhaps most radical exemption would be for items of significant historical importance. This would require an independent panel to determine whether items fall into this category – perhaps comprising representatives from the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum and a renowned art dealer. The items would be subjected to a radiocarbon dating test to verify their age. This panel would judge if an item made of or containing significant amounts of ivory should be given an exemption certificate allowing it to be purchased for the sake of the nation or for a collection, dependant on its age, provenance and historical importance.

It is only by reaching a pragmatic solution that we can close down the domestic ivory markets and stop the majority of items made from solid ivory being sold. We also need a ban that is enforceable and simple to police. These ideas should help create one of the toughest bans in the world, sending a clear message that ivory belongs to the past and that it is not acceptable that elephants are being killed on an industrial scale for a few trinkets.

So as we reflect on World Wildlife Day can we make the tough decisions that will help save a species?

David Cowdrey
Head of Policy & Campaigns
International Fund for Animal Welfare

Find IFAW on twitter: @IFAWUK

Full list of potential exemptions:
1. Museums being allowed to display, swap and exchange collections around the world (so exhibits and individual items can travel).
2. Antique furniture which contains less than 5% ivory. Again, this would need certification (as most furniture is easy to date)
3. Exemptions for antique miniature paintings, which are self-certified by the antiques trade (most are 17th/18th/early 19th Century and no new ones are painted)
4. Musical instruments which may contain ivory (following on from US exemption, so instruments can be taken abroad, bought or sold).
5. Saving items of significant historical importance, which will have to be verified through a radiocarbon dating test and then approved by an independent expert panel, to make sure that only items which are of extreme historical importance, can be bought or sold and saved for the nation. This will allow museums or collections to buy items from within the UK or abroad e.g. from those countries which do not have a ban, to protect and conserve these items for posterity.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.