In trying to parse all the details that go into the ban of all ivory products into the US and the banning of those products for sale across state lines by the Fish and Wildlife Service, it is clear that a public relations effort is being launched to demonize all ivory. For example, the banning has been conflated with the trafficking of all animals on the ESA (Endangered Species Act) list. Yes, elephant’s are being slaughtered for their ivory and this needs stopping, but no one is smuggling already existing ivory and it is not related to the current slaughter of elephants. The Advisory Panel that met on Thursday, March 20 in Arlington, VA ignored this fact, preferring to note how criminal organizations that orchestrated such trafficking were involved in drug smuggling, people trafficking, money laundering and terrorism.
Interestingly, CITES (Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), in a report from March 2013 and which, since 1982 has required permits for the movement of all items shipped internationally that contain such materials, finds that there is no criminal activity associated with ivory smuggling within the United States. For the Advisory Panel to cite criminal activity with ivory smuggling must, therefore mean, that such activity is taking place outside the borders of the US. Hence, the ban on ivory sales within the US, at the very least, is a red herring. But this is only one aspect of a larger problem with the thought process of the Fish and Wildlife’s ban.
One of the immediate weaknesses facing Fish and Wildlife’s thought process is how ivory is perceived in Asian countries. The Chinese word for ivory, for example, relates to the word tooth. Many Chinese do not realize that the elephant has to be killed to harvest its ivory. They believe that the tooth can be removed without destroying the elephant and that ivory products bear no relationship to declining elephant populations. This misunderstanding has helped to sustain the illegal trade of ivory to Asian countries whose relative insouciance to the declining elephant population is entirely logical.
Another aspect of the ban that Fish and Wildlife seems unawares of is the nature of African governance. One panel member, John Webb, suggested that army surplus be allocated to countries to help them deal with the sophisticated poachers who are using helicopters and machine guns to mow down herds of elephants. If this is true, and there is no reason to doubt this, then the smuggling operation is far more sophisticated and deadly and would require actual intervention on behalf of some body—NATO or some militarized force—to actually counter such wanton butchery. A ban on ivory products, already largely regulated by CITES, is not focusing on the problem. African governments also need to ask for help and they haven’t and probably will not.
Perhaps the most paradoxical aspect of this new law, and the US is very good at passing what I would call “silver bullet” legislation (think Prohibition or the Rockefeller law) that will solve myriad problems with one sweeping law, is that it will encourage a black market in ivory products that are old and have nothing whatsoever to do with the slaughter of elephants. Our cultural history, whether we like it or not, is intertwined with ivory, tortoise shell, horn, whale products—a whole host of animal related items that are now included in wildlife trafficking. It is a thorny problem that has not simple solution as the emotional argument—to save these animals—is compelling. No one in their right mind wishes to see the extinction of any species.
The answer requires hard work and a reliance on the honesty of those people who trade and collect antique objects. I don’t find this a hard thing to conceptualize. Americans are, for the most part, law abiding and willing to accept reasonable restrictions. A data base could be established to register antique ivory products so as to allow their sale and transfer and not disenfranchise those people who have collected rare art objects that include endangered species materials. That data base would be international and would quickly establish those persons wishing to abide by the law.