On 1 July 2017 Action for Elephants UK held a demonstration at the Art & Antiques Fair at Olympia to draw attention to the antiques trade’s opposition to a full ivory ban in the UK.
Why target the antiques trade?
The antiques trade has been the only professional sector in the UK that has consistently opposed an ivory ban, and arguably it was the trade’s intense lobbying that contributed to the long delay in the government finally acting.
The antiques trade lobbied fiercely against a full ban so it could continue to profit from buying and selling ivory ornaments. It argued that the sale of antique ivory pieces has nothing to do with the ongoing poaching crisis, and that a trained eye can distinguish whether a piece of ivory is antique or modern. But, as antiques dealers know, ivory can be made to look antique, and documents about an item’s age and provenance can easily be forged.
The link between selling antique ivory pieces in a legal market and the killing of elephants in Africa has been well proven, but the antiques trade chose to turn a blind eye to this evidence. Instead, spokespersons for antiques groups and countless anti-ivory ban articles in the trade press continued to argue against there being any connection between their trade and poaching.
To highlight the trade’s obstructionism, we staged our demo at the annual event of the British Antiques Dealers Association (BADA) — the Olympia event is one of the largest antiques fairs held in the UK. Our message was that all trade in ivory must be banned, as any legal trade will always allow loopholes for illegal ivory to enter the market. As long as any market for ivory exists, elephants will continue to be slaughtered – a clear and obvious connection that the antiques trade continued to refuse to acknowledge.
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 played a major role in keeping the ivory trade going. Notwithstanding its pledge to ban ivory in 2 election manifestos (in 2010 and 2015), the Conservative party reneged on its promise, both failing its African partners in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade, and failing to show leadership in closing ivory markets globally.
Finally, on 6 October 2017, the government announced its proposal for a full ban on the domestic ivory trade in the UK, including antiques, and the opening of a 12-week consultation period. Action for Elephants was very active in pushing for public support and responses to the consultation. The consultation had an overwhelming response from the public and conservationists, and led to the government formulating a bill for a robust ban on ivory trade, with minimal exemptions, that went to Parliament for debate. After receiving unprecedented support in both houses of Parliament, on 20 December 2018 the bill received Royal Assent and became law.
Action for Elephants UK was the leading grassroots group in the UK fighting for a ban on the ivory trade. Our event at Olympia was part of a broader 3-year fight to push for this ban. From 2015 we organized numerous protests at auction houses, outside DEFRA, Downing St and Parliament, and wrote open letters to 2 prime ministers and the head of BADA. We now look forward to the ban’s speedy and full implementation in 2019.