Legislation aims to close gap in Massachusetts ivory trade laws

Courtesy of Pixabay

By Sarah Garcia
BU News Service

BOSTON — The Boston area is one of the largest markets in the nation for illegal ivory trade, a fact that has legislators calling for change before the population of many of these gentle giants decreases any further.

“Boston and Cambridge together account for the seventh largest (ivory) market in the United States,” said Rep. Lori Erlich, D-Marblehead, before the Legislature’s Committee on Environment Natural Resources and Agriculture. “In fact, Boston has the fourth largest ivory trade on Craigslist above all U.S. cities.”

Ehrlich is a co-sponsor of a bill that stood before the committee for the third time Tuesday. The bill aims to end the trade of ivory and rhinoceros horns throughout Massachusetts in hopes of preventing the extinction of the animals from which they are harvested by making ivory trade illegal within the state with few exceptions. The hearing followed the May release of a report by the Humane Society that said illegal ivory trade is “thriving” in Massachusetts.

The investigation found that at the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s antique show alone, five vendors were unable to provide legal documentation for many of the ivory items being sold. 

“Among the items for sale: elephant ivory-handled canes, ivory dollhouse furniture, and large elephant ivory canisters that the seller said he made himself out of ‘the straight part’ of an elephant tusk,” the report read. 

The museum did not respond to multiple attempts for comment.

The concern regarding these practices stems from the dwindling number of elephants and rhinoceroses left in the wild.

“After 50 million years of evolution, there are less than 70 Javan rhinos and less than 80 Sumatran rhinos left in the wild,” said Ehrlich. “The western black rhino and northern white rhino are now extinct in the wild.”

The decline in elephant populations is just as steep, with an estimated 415,000 left in Africa and the numbers continue to plummet, said Brooke Wardrop of Zoo New England.

“For example, in Minkebe National Park in Gabon, 25,000 forest elephants were killed by poachers between 2004 and 2014,” Wardrop said.

Wardrop used a 2013 example, Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, where she said poachers poisoned a waterhole using cyanide and killed 300 elephants. The park made headlines several times since that incident for other poisonings as well. 

These methods kill indiscriminately; destroying not only entire elephant herds but entire ecosystems alongside them, Wardrop said.

The hunt for ivory is fueled by a $10-20 billion black market industry, Ehrlich said during her testimony. The bill would also create a fund intended to further support educational and enforcement efforts.

The passing of this legislation would match what is already a federal law for interstate trade, and what 10 other states, including New York, California and New Jersey, have already implemented within their borders.

“It’s important that Massachusetts restrict our trade and do what we can to mirror the federal regulations and, in fact, go a little bit further and include mammoth ivory, which they are unable to do because as an extinct animal they are not covered by the Endangered Species Act,” Harris said.

Mammoth tusks found in the northern permafrost have been integrated into the illegal ivory trade market as alternatives to elephant and rhino tusks, Harris said in her testimony. However, it is imperative that the trade of mammoth tusks also be restricted given that it only fuels the demand for more ivory, she explained. 

Due to the fact that mammoth and elephant tusks are almost indistinguishable, a specialist is necessary to determine the difference. 

“At present, there isn’t an inexpensive, quick, accurate test to tell the two ivories apart,” Wardrop said.

In order to avoid potential mix-ups and extra costs, advocates believe it is best for the state to include mammoth tusks within their restrictions.

Nearly a dozen lawmakers and attendees testified, urging the committee to put an end to such a deadly market. 

“I am frustrated though because we are playing a well-documented outside role in this slaughter as a state, and these gentle giants do not have time to spare,” Ehrlich said.

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