United States Tightens the Noose on the Ivory Trade

The U.S. announces important new rules to restrict the domestic trade in ivory.

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


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.")

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.

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.