U.S. One of Largest Ivory Markets, New Study Says

May 5, 2008

The United States is the world's second-largest retail market for elephant ivory products, behind only China, a new study says.

The study, published today by British-based conservation group Care for the Wild International (CWI), makes the claim based on investigations of thousands of retail outlets in 16 American cities between March and December 2006 and March and May 2007.

The study, jointly funded by Humane Society of the United States, Save the Elephants, and the John Aspinall Foundation, comes as scientists say market demand for ivory products in rich industrialized nations has prompted a precipitous rise in elephant poaching in recent years.

(Related: "African Elephants Slaughtered in Herds Near Chad Wildlife Park" [August 30, 2006].)

"Much of this trade is in contravention of both domestic laws and international treaties, and most of the ivory comes from China," said Christine Wolf, a CWI spokesperson.

Esmond Martin, a geographer and wildlife trade investigator involved in the report, said many of the ivory items found in the U.S. have been made after a 1990 ban on the ivory trade.

The restriction is part of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, an international agreement between governments meant to ensure that cross-border trade in animal and plant specimens doesn't threaten those populations. The U.S. is a signatory.

The most common types of worked ivory items for sale were netsukes (miniature sculptures), human figurines, and jewelry, most originating from China and Japan.

Laws and Loopholes

The report pointed out loopholes in U.S. laws against ivory trading, as well as faulted authorities for failing to properly enforce what is on the books.

"With regard to ivory trade, the U.S. fails to comply with many CITES regulations and its own national laws," the report says.

One provision of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, for example, requires that anyone commercially importing or exporting raw or worked ivory from African elephants get permission from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

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