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When Ideologues Use Government to Punish Ivory Owners Rather Than To Save Elephants

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The Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking again met as the administration prepares to turn millions of Americans into criminals and destroy billions of dollars in property. The policy is driven by ideology and actually would kill more elephants.

Most ivory in America is legal and its sale does not endanger wildlife today.  Before the international ban of 1989 millions of objects made of ivory or accented by small amounts of ivory entered the U.S. 

There are pianos, guitars, and violin bows.  Jewelry, canes, and chess sets.  Gun stocks, knife handles, and card holders.  Letter openers, book marks, and fans.  Netsukes, statues, and beer steins.  Crosses, balls, and seals.  Clocks, pool cues, and poker chips.  Furniture, musical instruments, and more.  These objects sit in museums, collections, and shops. 

To fight poaching the government could fight poaching.  That is, target those illegally killing elephants and selling illicit ivory.

Instead, the government has decided to play politics.  That is, penalize those trading in legal older ivory.  Alas, doing so won’t protect any elephants. 

In February the Fish and Wildlife Service took what it described as “our first step to implement a nearly complete ban on commercial elephant ivory trade.”  The agency plans to prohibit the sale of even antique ivory if the owner cannot “demonstrate” the age with “documented evidence.” Since 17th century carvers did not provide certificates of authenticity, virtually no ivory owner has such documentation, which Washington never before required.

The argument for the rule is that it would make life easier for FWS.  But it wouldn’t help stop poaching. 

First, until politics changed the policy this year, FWS successfully targeted real criminals. For instance, CITES reported a high level of effective enforcement in America.  In a 2008 study elephant researcher Daniel Stiles and conservationist Esmond Martin concluded:  “The USA has a good record for [ivory] seizures.” 

Second, the fact the law may be difficult to enforce is no excuse for treating those who followed the law and played by the rules as criminals.  Dealers and collectors have to learn the difference between newer and older ivories because older items are worth immeasurably more. 

Third, illicit ivory accounts for just a few percent of ivories sold in America.  Multiplying the number of illegal objects subject to seizure would make it far harder to find the few new ivories that endanger elephants. 

Merging the illegal and legal markets would encourage the illicit trade.  Today, argued economist Brendan Moyle in a new study for the Ivory Education Institute, legal ivories help reduce demand and prices for illegal items.  Moreover, desperate collectors would be tempted to turn to those on the other side of the law.  FWS would have to shift resources to track down everyone from active antique dealers to retired collectors. 

Fourth, Americans are not driving the demand for poached ivory.  In 2008 Stiles and Martin declared:  “the USA has the second largest ivory market in the world, after China-Hong Kong.  The illegal proportion of it, however, is much smaller than any country in Asia and most countries in Africa.  The USA ivory market poses a minimal threat to elephants.” 

In September 2012 FWS admitted the same:  “we do not believe that there is a significant illegal ivory trade into this country.”  Concluded Stiles, an African elephant specialist, in March:  “Most of the ivory sold in the U.S. is legal recycled ivory or genuine antiques.”  Moyle similarly noted:  “The size of the U.S. ivory market is a reflection of its historical size and not current poaching levels.” 

China is by far the largest market for illegal ivory.  Some prohibitionists contend that punishing Americans would lead China to act against poaching.  However, Beijing won’t harm its own people because the U.S. government treats U.S. antique collectors and dealers like criminals. 

The real agenda of some activists is not to save elephants.  They believe anyone possessing ivory deserves to lose the item’s value. 

Yet an 18th century ivory cane is an object, neither moral nor immoral.  There is nothing wrong with buying it, whatever its nature centuries ago. Moreover, some ivory was obtained from elephants which died naturally or were culled—killed because the habitat would not support them.

The administration’s assault on the rule of law should scare even those who do not own any ivory.  FWS would essentially steal people’s property at the behest of activist ideologues by changing a few words in the Federal Register.  

Americans should work together to save elephants.  With policies that actually address the problem.  And which respect people’s basic constitutional rights and liberties. The proposed ivory ban fails on all these counts.

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