Finally. The UK government has bowed to pressure from wildlife campaigners and will ban the sale of ivory, regardless of its age.
At least, that was the word this past Friday, after acting UK environment secretary Michael Gove — of all people — put forward a ban on the sales of all items carved from ivory, including those carved before 1947.
That’s key because, while the international trade in ivory had been illegal since 1990, a loophole in UK law permitted trade in ivory “antiques,” loosely defined as an ivory item carved before 1947. A further loophole — a loophole inside the loophole, if you will — permitted ivory “worked before 1990,” provided those items were accompanied by government certificates.
Given that government corruption is a driving force behind the illegal wildlife trade in many of the developing countries where elephants are trafficked for their tusks by international crime syndicates, the UK loophole was the very definition of hypocrisy. Why should UK government officials be allowed to sign off on supposedly “antique” ivory, but not government officials in, say, Tanzania or Namibia?
The UK is, or rather was, the world’s largest exporter of legal ivory — I did not know that until this past week — and cutting off the trade will in theory help slow down the illegal trade in ivory by international crime syndicates.
Despite recent wins by wildlife campaigners — China and the U.S. have both resolved to scale back trade in ivory, if not eliminate it entirely — poaching continues to be a serious problem. More than 50 elephants are killed by poachers every day. A 2016 elephant census across Africa, funded in part by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, showed that the continent lost a third of its remaining wild elephant in just the 10 years prior to 2016.
If anything, poaching has only increased over the past year, exacerbated by a sudden, unwelcome surge in the poaching of rhinos for their horns. Considering the gestation period for an elephant is two years, and elephants only give birth to one baby at a time, it doesn’t take an advanced degree in mathematics to see how see where an already dwindling population of wild elephants could be heading.
The ruling Conservative government was believed to be disinterested in widening the UK ban; the Tories removed a pledge on ivory from their 2017 election manifesto in June, even though it had been included in the party’s 2015 election manifesto.
Celebrity campaigners from Prince William to Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking and Ricky Gervais mounted a vocal protest that found favour with ordinary, everyday voters fed up with what they perceive to be wanton greed — the rich getting richer — with utter disregard for the wellbeing of the planet.
Of course, bans are one thing; discouraging demand and eliminating the market entirely is another.
“The unprecedented crisis we face – with Africa’s natural heritage being destroyed and communities put at risk due to poaching by illegal armed gangs – will only stop when people stop buying ivory,” Stop Ivory’s John Stephenson told the media Friday.
Even so, Stephenson said he was gratified by the government’s “important step,” and looks forward to seeing the ban implemented and enforced “without delay.”
Other NGOs caution that the road ahead is not entirely clear, either for elephants or any other endangered animals trafficked for profit.
World Wildlife Fund CEO Tanya Steele warned that the scale of the problem is vast, and promises need to be back up with action.
“The illegal trade involving organized criminals is a global problem requiring global solutions,” Steele told reporters. “To end it anywhere means ending it everywhere. This is about more than banning ivory sales in one country. It means working with leaders and communities around the world, particularly in China and Southeast Asia.”
While China has appeared to have turned a corner, for example, and to a lesser extent Vietnam, Laos has suddenly become the new frontier in the wild west of illegal wildlife trafficking.
In the meantime, carefully staged photo ops in developing countries like Kenya — twice in four years, now — have seen governments burn stockpiles of elephant tusks, to show the world that they value their remaining living elephants, and the tourist revenue they bring, over selling ivory on the black market and getting rich at the expense of future generations.
The ivory burns, dismissed by some as a cheap publicity gimmick — even though, given the value of the ivory involved, they can hardly be said to have been inexpensive — clearly had an effect on public opinion in the media-savvy West.
The UK Tory government didn’t widen the ivory ban because they wanted to, but because ordinary, everyday people shamed them into doing it, and not just because of the Duke of Cambridge and Stephen Hawking.
Yes, the UK is just one country, but wins in wildlife conservation have to be taken as they come, day by day, and at a time.