Illicit or Legal: American Ivory Market Fuels Poaching

WASHINGTON, DC, September 24, 2004 (ENS) - The first in-depth look at the U.S. ivory market since a global ban on commercial trade in elephant ivory was imposed in 1989 finds an active trade in ivory taking place, especially over the Internet.

A study of both legal and illegal ivory markets in the United States was released Thursday by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and IUCN-The World Conservation Union.

Not all trade in elephant ivory is illegal, and TRAFFIC found a thriving legal market in the United States. U.S. law allows for the import and sale of elephant ivory that is antique and certified as being in trade before the CITES ban went into effect. It is also legal for hunters to import ivory trophies from African countries that allow trophy hunting of elephants.


Antique ivory carving from a personal collection offered at auction online. Current bid more than $4,000. (Photo courtesy eBay)
TRAFFIC investigators examined U.S. government seizure records for ivory, researched the domestic U.S. ivory market and posed as prospective ivory buyers online to learn about the ease with which overseas ivory dealers get their goods across the U.S. border.

The study was released ahead of next month’s meeting of 166 governments and numerous NGOs in Bangkok for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which administers the international ban on commercial trade in elephant ivory. More effective enforcement of the ban is on the agenda.

"The Internet has emerged as a major vehicle for selling ivory around the world, allowing anyone with a computer to buy and sell ivory anonymously. We’re concerned by the high volume of ivory being bought by Americans online," said Simon Habel, director of TRAFFIC. "When we posed online as potential buyers, ivory sellers and other buyers assured us that getting ivory into the United States is no problem."

Much of the elephant ivory sold at auction online is antique, and whether it is antique or not, trade in ivory aged before 1989 is legal. But it is easy to find ivory carvings dated after 1989 online, particularly Chinese carvings, and trade in them is not legal.

Not all ivory sold on the Internet is elephant ivory. Carvings made from hippopotamus ivory, walrus ivory and warthog tusk are sold.

Mastodon carvings made from 9,000 year old ivory are sold at auction, and so are carvings of mammoth ivory. These are carved from tusks of the wooly mammoth, which has been extinct for over 10,000 years. These tusks are dug from the icy ground of Siberia, Estonia and Alaska.


Ivory carving from 1995 offered online by a Chinese seller. (Photo courtesy eBay)
TRAFFIC found that an average of about 1,000 items per week advertised as elephant ivory were offered for sale on eBay during TRAFFIC’s investigation.

TRAFFIC found regular shipments of ivory carvings and jewelry being sold to U.S. customers over eBay from vendors in China under circumstances that may be illegal, with these web-based "stores" routinely shipping ivory to the U.S. via express delivery service and even offering to falsely label the shipments as containing bone.

TRAFFIC found that the United States Customs Service has the highest rate of ivory seizures in the world and that much of the ivory caught at the borders is being brought into the country by individual consumers, often as souvenirs, jewelry and carvings. But not all of it. Some is brought in by well organized groups of smugglers.

U.S. Customs Special Agent Maryann Dorsey had been on the job less than six months when she became the case agent in a federal investigation that made news around the world. On April 9 and 11, 2001, Customs inspectors seized 260 pounds of African ivory - the biggest seizure since the importation of elephant tusks became illegal in 1989.

"It began," Dorsey says, "on April 9, when one of our Customs inspectors called Senior Special Agent Scott Chevalier, the duty officer that day, and told him Customs had stopped a load of illegal ivory that had come into Los Angeles International Airport from Nigeria. Inspectors targeted the shipment, x-rayed a shipment of furniture, and uncovered whole elephant tusks hidden in the backs of chairs and chair seats. The Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed the ivory was real."


Customs Senior Special Agent Mary Pipkin and Fish and Wildlife Service Inspector Michael Brown remove carved African ivory from a chair seat. (Photo by Melisa Armijo courtesy U.S. Customs)
Officers received another shipment two days later marked with the same address. They waited to see who showed up to claim the 480 pieces of ivory - worth an estimated $375,000 - sitting at LAX. On April 17, agents arrested Ebrima Mirigo, a Liberian national, and on April 18, Bahoreh Kabba, a citizen of Gambia.

Customs Supervisor Pamela Caudill says the shipments are evidence that the international market for illegal ivory is once again on the rise. The ivory that was seized, she notes, was both carved and raw. In many cases, she said, "The tusks were no longer than six to eight inches, a signal that very young elephant calves were killed to get them."

Between 1995 and 2002, TRAFFIC found that more than 32,000 ivory items were legally imported into the country, the majority being ivory carvings and a smaller number of tusks, jewelry, ivory pieces and piano keys. Trade of that ivory within the U.S. is only loosely regulated by individual states’ laws, TRAFFIC found.

The volume of illegal ivory seized at the border between 1995 and 2002, was about one-quarter of the ivory legally imported. TRAFFIC found that more than 8,300 ivory items were seized at the border or refused entry by law enforcement. These items were shipped to the United States from more than 80 countries around the world.

"American consumers need to know that buying ivory from overseas and bringing it into the United States without CITES permits is illegal, and that such purchases fuel poaching of elephants across Africa," Habel said. "In general, Americans should avoid buying ivory overseas."

With as many as 100,000 elephants a year slaughtered in Africa by poachers during the 1980s, the international community imposed the ivory ban through CITES in 1989. Ivory from Asian elephants was banned from U.S. imports even earlier. The ban has been widely hailed for reducing poaching and allowing African elephant populations to begin to recover.

"Illegal ivory markets are having a direct impact on elephant populations, particularly in west and central Africa," says Ginette Hemley, WWF's vice president for species conservation. "Consumers need to realize the true cost of buying ivory is poached elephants."