The State’s Fight Over Ivory

The tusks of a mastadon on a mounted skeleton at the Page Museum of the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California.

The tusks of a mastadon on a mounted skeleton at the Page Museum of the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California.

After visiting a dozen antique stores in Boston, I finally found ivory on Newbury Street. The antique earrings were about the size of a pair of pencil erasers — white, with tiny black ships scrimshawed into them. I turned them over in my fingers and tried to determine how they were different from the bone, plastic, tagua nut and mammoth ivory I had seen before.

The store was small and sun-lit, and definitely not the only store in Boston or Cambridge selling ivory. I asked the other shopkeepers in the neighborhood if they had any ivory. “Not really,” said one. “It’s illegal,” said another. “But there is a guy up the street…tell him I sent you.”

I found it strange that so many antique dealers believe that there is currently  a complete ban on ivory, because that is not true. There are restrictions on selling ivory, but no complete ban. In accordance with U.S. Federal law, consumers can only buy and sell ivory that was imported to the U.S. before the 1989 ban on imports. There are some exceptions to that ban, but keeping track of the nuances can be challenging and it’s easier to discontinue trading in the material altogether.  Given the complicated legal and ethical status of buying and selling ivory, it’s no wonder that it was so difficult to find any at an antique shop.

Theoretically, selling “pre-ban” ivory can’t hurt elephants, because the elephants that provided the ivory died before the ban went into effect. But the global concern over elephant poaching, fueled by the demand for their tusks, has galvanized a trend to implement more regulations and bans against selling elephant ivory. New York and New Jersey banned almost all trade in the substance, and California will begin enforcing a similar ban in July 2016.

It’s difficult to distinguish which ivory is  legal and antique, versus which  is not. Paperwork is not required for antique ivory, and tests to determine an artifact’s age cost  a few hundred dollars. A blanket ban would make it easier for law enforcement to confiscate and impose fines, without having to prove that the ivory came into the country after the 1989 import ban.

Legislators in Massachusetts, among other states, are trying to stifle the ivory trade. Senator Jason Lewis (D-Winchester), and  Representative Lori Ehrlich (D-Marblehead),  proposed bills to address this. The bills  include not just elephant ivory, but merchandise that is in whole or in part made of the teeth and tusks of whales, hippos, and mammoths. If the bills pass without any alteration (which is unlikely) selling these forms of ivory would be illegal in  Massachusetts, even if the item in question was legal under federal law. Representative Ehrlich has publicly stated that she plans to amend the bills to exclude whale ivory as a product category  and scientific institutions as procurers.

Despite growing attention to  the ivory business,  poaching and trade continue to increase annually. According to WildAid’s 2015 Tanzania Survey report, in 2011, poachers killed about one in 12 of the earth’s elephants. Complicating the issue, the National Geographic’s September 2015 cover story featured information about  the illegal ivory trade funding terrorist groups,  such as Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Not all antique dealers believe in selling ivory. Tom Lang, co-owner of Alexander Westerhoff Antiques in Essex, Massachusetts, testified  in favor of a complete  ban, even for antique ivory. “The illicit trade is actually riding on the back of the legal trade, meaning the antique ivory,” Lang said, just before a public hearing on ivory in the Massachusetts State House, “The newer ivory is being stained and carved in a period-looking style.”

Lang has a point. Several ivory dealers have been convicted of selling new, illegal ivory by claiming it was pre-ban. In 2014, U.S. Ivory dealer Victor Gordon was sentenced to 30 months and fined $150,000 for trafficking in poached ivory and painting it black or staining it to make it look antique.

Still, the scope of the bill has the potential to harm a variety of businesses, including sellers of pianos and mammoth ivory. Michael Viennau the owner of The Scrimshander Gallery in Nantucket, sells carved and engraved whale teeth and mammoth ivory, and  believes  that the new ban could reduce his sales by half.

“I thought [mammoth ivory]  would be the ethical material to use, so I moved into that totally,” said Viennau.  “I didn’t think there would be any chance that they would ban that. There’s no reason to. It’s already extinct!” If mammoth ivory is included on the bill, Viennau said that he would join other vendors in an “inevitable” class-action lawsuit against the state for the value of their collections.

People disagree about whether more bans on ivory would actually  protect elephants. John Frederick Walker,  author of Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants, believes that there will always be a global demand for ivory, and there are ways to regulate the trade to protect elephants without making criminals of antique dealers. Instead of incarcerating people who were unable to keep up with convoluted, constantly changing laws, authorities could test ivory for  age and issue certificates of legality to pieces.  “I think that the current aim [of more complete ivory bans] is liable to be very counter-productive and a waste of resources,” said Walker. “Like the war on drugs.”

When I first asked for ivory in the Newbury St. antique shop, the shopkeeper said she didn’t have any. “You would have a hard time finding someone who would look you in the eye and say they have ivory,” she added. But after I told her I was writing about the proposed ivory ban, she showed me the earrings.

I asked if she thought I was from The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service when I first asked about ivory. “No, I’m not worried about that, because we don’t keep any,” she said, even as I held the tiny pieces of elephant tusk in my hand. “I took it all off the shelves. I couldn’t look at any more pictures of dead elephants. So no more ivory.”

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