Obama has Banned the Sale of Antique Ivory

Obama signed an executive order which will effectively end the trade of antique ivory. Previously, ivory that was imported before 1989 could be sold. Due to increased poaching activity, Obama has decided to ban the sale of all ivory unless there is written proof that it was legally obtained.

The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) went into effect July 1, 1975. It is a treaty that was signed by 179 countries to ensure that the trade of endangered plants and animals doesn’t threaten their survival as a species. In the United States, the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) covered everything that was required by CITES, acting as our implementation. The ESA covers more species than CITES; it is currently protecting 626 foreign species. Biologists who work as part of the Division of Scientific Authority decide which species should be added or removed from the list. African Elephants, Asian Elephants, and the five extant rhinoceros species are all on this list.

Ivory carving at the United Nations – it was a gift from China

In 1990, CITES banned the international trade of ivory from after 1989. Any pre-1989 ivory could still be bought and sold. This was done to help prevent poaching. While this ban was mostly effective, poaching is still widespread. In addition, it was up to the prosecutor to prove that the ivory was illegal. This made it very difficult to prosecute cases. This ban was very effective for two reasons. First of all, it brought awareness to how cruel the ivory trade is. Once there was widespread coverage of the ivory trade, ivory was vilified. It became taboo to own ivory. Second, it gave the people who collect ivory anyways an avenue to do so without hurting more animals. Ivory carvings are beautiful, and this gave people a great way to collect some of the art without having to worry about more elephants being killed. Ivory poaching has heavily declined since this ban. Most of the poaching today is smuggled to Asia.

Ivory carving of an African elephant

On February 11, 2014, Obama signed an executive order that effectively bans the sale of all ivory. Although most of the poached ivory today is exported to Asia, there is still a large market in the United States for illegal ivory. The new order doesn’t actually ban the sale, but it may as well have. First of all, imports are banned. This used to be the case for new ivory, but now antique ivory is included in this ban. Exports are also banned unless the seller can prove in writing that the ivory is over 100 years old. In addition, interstate sales are now banned unless there is written proof that it was imported before the 1990 CITES ban. This proof usually doesn’t exist, because the ivory trade was unrestricted so documentation was unnecessary. Even if there was written proof when the ivory was first purchased, it was probably lost long ago.

Elephant tusks being prepared to be sold. All of the elephants these tusks came from were killed.

The biggest problem with these new measures is that they do not do anything to combat the illegal ivory trade. There is a large black market presence for post-1990 ivory, and pre-1990 ivory doesn’t sell often. Banning the legal ivory will only increase the market for illegal ivory. As the supply of illegal ivory is decreased, the price will increase. Without legal ivory to satisfy the demand, the profit from illegal ivory will increase. Similarly to how the Mexican cartels profited from the “War on Drugs,” this executive order will most likely lead to massive profits for the poachers.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for enforcing the ESA, CITES, and this new executive order. They have received huge budget cuts over the last few years, limiting their ability to effectively combat the illegal ivory trade. The Obama Administration has denied their request for an increased budget, and instead decided to impose rules that will increase the illegal ivory trade. Forbes contributor Doug Bandow put it very well:

The mass killing of elephants is tragic. But demand for new ivory, not items legally imported decades or centuries ago, fuels the trade. Governments should penalize poachers and their seller allies—not responsible collectors and dealers who have followed the rules.

Indeed, the administration’s new policy is worse than unfair. They are counterproductive. They will expand the illegal ivory market, divert enforcement resources, and push owners of legal ivory into the illegal trade. Which means more elephants are likely to die. Surely that is not the legacy desired by President Obama. – Doug Bandow

An elephant calf with its mother

While something needs to be done to help end ivory poaching, banning the sale of legally obtained antique ivory is not the right answer. For one, the hunting of elephants is still legal! Big game hunters can obtain expensive permits to hunt a limited amount of elephants. This number was recently lowered to two a year, but that is still two too many. In addition, if a mother is killed, her calves will usually be unable to survive. Second, effort should be put into awareness and conservation rather than prosecuting antique stores for not having documentation for their 100 year old ivory. Last of all, more work should be done with the African governments to help end this awful practice.

We would love to hear your opinion on this issue:

Do you think this executive order will help decrease poaching?

Do you think ivory from before 1990 should be allowed to be sold?

What do you think should be done to help conservation efforts?

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Fish and Wildlife Service








National Geographic


Washington Post