AFE position statement on the UK ivory trade
Action for Elephants UK (AFE) is a grassroots advocacy group working to save and protect elephants in the wild. We lead and organize campaigns, protests and marches to call for an end to poaching and to the ivory trade that perpetuates the killing of over 20,000 elephants each year.
We are in the forefront of efforts to bring about a full ban on the domestic ivory trade in the UK. Despite pledging such a ban in two election manifestos, the government has failed to carry this out. It will be holding a consultation (in April 2017) to discuss the trade of antique ivory (defined as pre-1947), rather than the total ban on all ivory trade that’s so badly needed. We believe that these narrowed parameters point to the strong influence of the antiques lobby and demonstrate that the government has no heart for a total ban. Rather than being a ‘step in the right direction’, it appears that the government is caving in to the commercial interests of a small number of traders who want to continue to profit from buying and selling ivory ornaments. As well as reneging on its pledge to the electorate, the government has tarnished its reputation globally as a player in the fight to end the ivory trade.
Any kind of partial ban, or merely tightening regulations for trading ivory, will send the message that this trade remains acceptable and that ivory is a desirable commodity with intrinsic monetary value. It is high time for this perception to pass into history, and a full ban on commercial trade is vital for that change in perception. A partial ban would also fly in the face of abundant evidence that any legal trade, no matter how well regulated, is rife with loopholes for illegal (newly poached) ivory to enter the market.
Furthermore, the UK was party to the resolution reached at the CITES conference in September 2016 for the closure of all domestic ivory markets worldwide – a critical step in the fight to end poaching. In failing to honour this commitment, the UK has damaged its credibility on the global stage and at home.
The UK has a global role to play
As the largest exporter of ivory in the EU, as well as allowing a thriving legal ivory trade at home, the UK plays a major role in keeping these markets open. This makes the UK a complicit player in the ongoing poaching that is driving elephants to extinction in the wild.
While this government backs away from decisive action on a full ban, other countries have led by example: the US has implemented a near-total ban, France has banned trade in ivory, and, against all expectations, China announced a total ban on its ivory trade, to be fully implemented by the end of this year. If China, the biggest global consumer of ivory, with a deeply rooted cultural tradition of ivory-carving going back centuries, can ban its ivory trade, we must ask: What is stopping the UK from bringing an end to its own trade?
Who is opposing a full ban on the UK’s ivory trade and why?
We believe that the chief (perhaps only) obstacle to a full ban lies with a small but influential group of dealers in the antiques trade who sell ivory. It is in their interest to fight a ban so they can continue to profit from buying and selling ivory ornaments. They argue that a trained eye can distinguish whether a piece of ivory is antique or modern. But, as antiques dealers know better than anyone, ivory can be made to look antique, and forged documents can easily lie about an item’s age and provenance. They also know that the only way to securely date a piece of ivory is by radiocarbon dating. Despite this, there are those in the trade who are happy to sell modern ivory under the pretence of it dating to pre-1947 (the date set as the dividing line between modern and antique ivory). This makes them complicit in the laundering of illegal ivory.
An investigation carried out by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in 2016 proved the link between the UK ivory trade and the current poaching crisis. Predictably, the British Antique Dealers’ Association (BADA) rebutted this, citing a report by TRAFFIC that concluded that any such links ‘appear tenuous at best’. This report is so methodologically flawed, and the samples used so few and inadequately examined, that it holds no credibility whatsoever.
Museums have also commented on the issue. The British Museum and the V&A voiced concerns that a ban would harm their collections of ‘indispensable’ treasures and the country’s ‘cultural heritage’ by affecting the museums’ ability to acquire pre-1947 ivory and to display and lend ivory items in their collections. But the call for a full ban only relates to trading and not to existing collections, whether in public or private ownership. The antiques trade has made alarmist but misleading statements implying that antique ivory objects in collections would be at risk with a ban, but campaigners have never advocated the confiscation or destruction of ivory in museums or personal possession.
Where is the moral dimension?
Glaringly absent from arguments against a full ban is the most important one of all: the moral one. Every day, huge numbers of these magnificent, highly intelligent and socially complex animals are mowed down by poachers’ guns, killed in traps, poisoned by cyanide, and often butchered alive as their tusks are hacked from their faces. It would be a sobering experience for DEFRA officials (and obstructionist antiques dealers) to go to Africa and see for themselves the rotting carcasses of de-tusked elephants, or visit sanctuaries for traumatized baby elephants orphaned by human greed and cruelty. This is the reality – and will continue to be the reality until all markets for ivory are shut down completely and permanently.
Another charge that can be levelled against this government is that of letting down those countries in Africa fighting hard to end poaching. The African Elephant Coalition (AEC), comprising 29 countries, has said that global bans on international and domestic trade in ivory are essential for the protection of elephants, and it has called on all countries to close their ivory markets. It is shameful that the British government is shirking this call.
Further, there is now firm evidence for the direct involvement of Africa-based terrorist groups in the poaching crisis. The destruction, killing and havoc wreaked by these groups on local communities is well documented, and it’s also known that they increasingly finance their activities through poaching, trafficking and controlling transport routes of tusks. These groups are a threat to rregional and transnational stability, yet such concerns seem to be entirely absent from the government’s discussions on the issue.
Will tighter regulation of the ivory market help?
A recent report by Caroline Cox of Portsmouth University surveyed a small number of antiques traders for their views on more tightly regulating the trade in pre-1947 ivory. Commenting on this report, Charlie Mayhew, chief executive of Tusk, said that it ‘provides real evidence that many dealers know that their industry is complicit in the sale of illegal ivory and consumers are being misled. As long as the government allows the British ivory market to flourish in its current form – with modern ivory passed off as old – there will be a direct link from sale rooms and stall-holders to African savanna, with the market encouraged by traders leading to the killing of even more elephants. Britain’s intransigence on tightening up the law on trade is undermining its claim that it is still at the forefront of international efforts to end the illegal wildlife trade.’
In short, there is no evidence to suggest that tighter regulations or policing would close the loopholes or end the illegal trade. It is also questionable whether those antiques dealers who sell ivory would stringently abide by a new raft of regulations. Nor can we disregard the powerful motive of financial greed. Naturally the anti-ban antiques traders vehemently deny any complicity in the sale of modern ivory, and insist that they too want to see an end to poaching. But if that were true, why isn’t the whole trade uniting behind the call for a full ban? It’s impossible to hold both positions simultaneously – being against poaching but also wanting the sale of ivory to continue – yet that’s exactly what traders do, and they see no moral quandary or contradiction in this view.
Is protecting special interests more important than saving elephants?
Motives of greed are repugnant but not hard to understand. What’s less clear is why, in our view, a small number of merchants in an already small commercial sector wield so much influence on the government’s policy-making on this issue. How can the self-serving interests of these traders be more important than taking action to save a species? And why, when the vast majority of the British public wants to see a complete end to the domestic ivory trade, is the government not listening?
Should we look for the answer in the disproportionate influence of the antiques trade on the government, and strong lobbying to represent their interests? We can’t know what goes on behind the scenes, but it is clear that such interests would not even have the ear of a government that had a genuine concern for the plight of elephants and their catastrophic decline.
What role will this government play and how will history judge it?
We ask this government: Is it content to be a complicit player in the process that’s driving elephants to extinction in the wild, all for the sake of a few ornaments and the greed of those who profit from them? Has it no concern for the judgement of history, which will show it gave the thumbs-down to elephants’ survival when it had the opportunity to help save them?
We hold that this government has an inarguable moral duty to protect the remaining elephant populations that face not only the poachers’ guns but the additional threats of habitat loss and human-elephant conflict. It is also a moral imperative for ALL countries with a legal trade in ivory to support African range countries in bringing about a global ban on all domestic ivory markets, as agreed at the CITES conference last September. Until the UK finally and comprehensively closes its ivory market, it will remain a pariah, not a leader, in the global fight against poaching and the illegal wildlife trade.