National Geographic Daily News
Elephants in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya.

The new ivory rules ban the commercial import of African elephant ivory.


Bryan Christy

for National Geographic

Published February 11, 2014

New restrictions on the ivory trade designed to create "a near complete ban" on the commercial sale of African elephant ivory in the U.S. were announced Tuesday by the Obama Administration.

Elephants and rhinos have taken center stage in global coverage of illegal wildlife trafficking, and the ivory restrictions are a cornerstone of the administration's new plan. (Read "Blood Ivory" in National Geographic magazine.)

This federal action complements growing momentum among states, such as New York, that are now contemplating their own ivory bans.

American rules governing international and domestic trade in elephant ivory are notoriously complex and have been further complicated by unequal enforcement over the years.

The new rules are designed to eliminate several existing forms of trade and, in an important step, to shift the burden of proof for whether ivory is legal from the government to an ivory holder. This shifting of the burden of proof is a major innovation, as most wildlife criminals in the U.S. benefit from the government's having to prove that endangered wildlife in their possession was smuggled. (Imagine a cocaine trafficker looking a DEA agent in the eye and saying, "Prove I smuggled it.")

Photo of stacked ivory tusks.” width=
Photograph by Joe Amon, The Denver Post, Getty
The U.S. crushed six tons of confiscated ivory in November, the start of a global push to stop the illegal ivory trade.

Among key provisions, the new ivory rules ban the commercial import of African elephant ivory, meaning that it will now be illegal to import antique ivory commercially. (Read more in National Geographic's A Voice for Elephants blog.)

Likewise, sport hunters of African elephants will have restrictions on what they can bring back to the U.S. Before the new rules, big-game hunters could use loopholes in African and U.S. laws to bring back large numbers of "culled" elephant heads, including ivory. Now, hunters will be limited to importing two dead elephants a year.

The new rules are designed to force people with ivory to prove how and when an item was imported. Legitimate imports of, say, antique ivory for personal use or for use in approved musical instruments will have to come through designated "antique" ports. Or ivory will have to be designated for scientific or law enforcement purposes.

"Bold Actions"

The U.S. has the world's leading DNA laboratory for analyzing elephant ivory, a key tool in mapping poaching hot spots. Unfortunately, red tape restricting trade in ivory also hangs up exchange of ivory samples for DNA testing and law enforcement. Hopefully, the new rules will make this a smoother process, something parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) should also undertake.

What is most heartening about the U.S. announcement is that it signifies that the ivory crush the U.S. conducted in November 2013 was not meaningless. Destroying ivory is a symbolic act. It has no impact on the international ivory trade without additional action.

In 1989, Kenya burned its ivory, then voted for an ivory ban. Today, a growing number of countries are destroying their ivory stocks but without announcing any subsequent action to stop the trade. Tying action to symbolism is critical if change is to occur.

Map showing countries where ivory has been crushed or burned.” width=
NG Staff. Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, CNN, BBC, Kenya Wildlife Service

In all, the new rules represent a significant step forward in reducing the American role in the international ivory trade and in helping American law enforcement stop traffickers. (Related: "New WildLeaks Website Invites Whistle-Blowers on Wildlife Crime.")

"These bold actions give us all the tools we need to shut down black market elephant ivory trafficking in this country," said William Woody, chief of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We're eliminating the loopholes that help smugglers launder newly poached blood ivory via U.S. markets."

Summits Are Important; Action Is Needed

On February 12 and 13, British Prime Minister David Cameron hosts a global summit on wildlife trafficking, focused largely on the African elephant.

Everybody and his uncle in wildlife conservation is clamoring for a seat at the table or an invite to a related symposium held the day before by the Zoological Society of London.

On the ground, from Africa to Asia, what's needed is the breakup of criminal ivory trafficking syndicates and the poachers they employ.

In the home, consumers need to turn away from ivory and the terrible cost in human and animal lives of the blood ivory trade.

In the halls of government, leaders need to engage the world's biggest consumer of legal and illegal ivory: China.

By closing down its domestic ivory market, the United States helps the world tighten the noose on the illegal ivory trade. Other countries should follow.

David McMillin
David McMillin

Why are US  hunters allowed 2 dead elephants a year? Why not make it zero? 

Vickie Slater
Vickie Slater

".. Before the new rules, big-game hunters could use loopholes in African and U.S. laws to bring back large numbers of "culled" elephant heads, including ivory. Now, hunters will be limited to importing two dead elephants a year."

The cost for one of these big game license's can exceed U.S. F&W budget, a vanity sport for the wealthy, and millions to our government (thus, the "loophole").  However many can afford it, will have their two elephants, tusks and all.  I just heard there is approximately 250,000 elephants left. Anyone who has watched a Nat Geo film on elephants knows that the death of a mother, can mean the same for her calf. I say, Blah! This article boasts that we are taking action over substance? Until we ban the hunt, we are nothing more than hypocrites to think we have the moral high ground over China. 

Maraya Cornell
Maraya Cornell

Is the U.S. Fish & Wildlife service's $4 million budget for this year going to be enough to enforce the new rules?

Bela Bel
Bela Bel

Excellent news but there needs to be a constant pressure. In my opinion destroying tusks and horns will not deter poaching. Harsher convictions and better education and awareness will help. Ultimately, these endangered species are located in areas across the globe where poverty is rife. Poachers kill for ivory which helps them survive. If there was no demand, there would be no supply. Why is there demand? Target that first and then the solution will follow. Good article. 

gabriela kaplan
gabriela kaplan

I propose that all animals get their tusks bleached with indelible pigment that renders it  worthless to the trade. SInce the animals are darted, to put chips on them, better, dip the tusks in some awful colorant, and let them go their merry way.

Forget the chips, they are costly, and unnecessary  for once the tusks are colored no one would want to poach them.

james wenum
james wenum

How on earth does destroying precious ivory, deter poaching?  In my eyes, it would make it all that more valuable, and is an absolute idiotic waste of a diminishing resource. I also fail to understand, why hunting of elephants is allowed at all. who, is designing these moronic rules. Maybe, if the trees were all cut down,and the land stripped of vegatation, the poachers would be spotted more easily. This approach, seems to me just as intelligent !

pamela letstalkaboutcorsica
pamela letstalkaboutcorsica

took time, but at least it's happening, now to fix the rest of the global problem - from the roots, yes, the syndicates and the poachers - hopefully this will not take another x amount of years

Paul Burnett
Paul Burnett

So are they going to destroy all old pianos and organs because they have ivory keys? Or is there an exemption?


@james wenum I couldn't agree with you any more.  It is such a stupid rule and it would make ivory more valuable since the supply would be restricted.  All the more reason for poachers to go after more killings to get ivory.

Almost as bad as the millions of pounds of cheese that was in government cold storage for many years.  A blll was brought before congress to distribute the cheese to each state to be given to the poorest of families in need of food and assistance.  It was argued for 3 years before it was finally approved.  By that time, all those millions of pounds (or was it tons?) of cheese had spoiled.  The cost of renting the cold storage was in the 100's of millions and it was almost 700 million to get rid of the spoil cheese.  I believe that the government bought up all that cheese to stablilize the cheese market because there was such an abundance of it.  Similar to the the millions of gallons of milk that was destroyed because of the excess amount that the dairy producers would loose money on the sale of there milk.  Reduce the amount of milk and make the pricess go up.  But who in the end pays for it all?  The tax payers!  The same people that the government is suppose to be helping.  There are nothing but idiots and morons in Washington.  God save us all! 

Mickey Pardo
Mickey Pardo

@james wenum  The idea behind destroying ivory stockpiles is largely a symbolic one-- governments publicly demonstrating that they oppose the illegal ivory trade.  However, there are some practical reasons for it as well.  Many countries that have ivory stockpiles eventually end up wanting to sell them, which in the past has seemed to actually stimulate demand and increase illegal trade (purely correlative evidence, but it's all we have to go on).  By destroying the stockpile they eliminate the temptation to sell it in the future.  Also, in many nations, ivory tends to leak out of the stockpiles and find its way back onto the black market.  This is largely due to poor security and corruption, which are not easy problems to remedy.  Destroying the ivory guarantees that it won't end up on the black market again.

Annie Crousore
Annie Crousore

No, they said that aside from certain musical instruments, use and trade of ivory should be limited.

Francine Brewin
Francine Brewin

@Paul Burnett  

Of course not.  Ivory hasn't been used in pianos since the 60s.  They are made of plastic nowadays.  Ivory also yellows and it was hard to clean and maintain.  


@Desiree Waterhouse @Paul Burnett What is your problem?  You sound like a babbling idiot making no sense in what you are saying.  Why not try to make a contribution to this page instead of making an ass of yourself.  People like you make me sick.  You don't know shit from Shinola!

Justin Smith
Justin Smith

@Desiree Waterhouse @Paul Burnett  I think if you would actually read what he said, at face value, you would have had your answer that he asked a legit question. I would not doubt for one minute that the final goal of any group that  sets out these laws concerning ivory is the  total and complete ban on ownership. Especially since they want to ban the sale of antique ivory. That would eventually become a de facto ban on the ownership of any and all ivory. Because you could only inherit ivory and property over time is destroyed, due to fires floods, etc. With no new ivory going into the hands of the individual eventually nobody will have ivory. 

Desiree Waterhouse
Desiree Waterhouse

@JIM GUPTON Why are you throwing insults around when I did no such thing to anybody else here. I misread his comment. Get over yourself. I did not sound like a babbling idiot. You do though! 

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