Photograph by Michael Nichols
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African elephants face a serious population decline because of poaching for their ivory.

Photograph by Michael Nichols

UK to Introduce 'Toughest' Ivory Ban in the World

With Europe playing a major role in the ivory trade, conservationists are hopeful the UK’s ban will pave the way for EU-wide action.

The United Kingdom will introduce a new ban on ivory sales, the government announced today. It will be one of the strictest in the world, allowing for only narrow exceptions. Violators will face up to five years in jail or an unlimited fine.

“Ivory should never be seen as a commodity for financial gain or a status symbol, so we will introduce one of the world’s toughest bans on ivory sales to protect elephants for future generations,” said British Environment Secretary Michael Gove in a press release.

Elephant poaching is at crisis levels, driven by the ivory trade. Some 30,000 African elephants are slaughtered by poachers each year, with African savanna elephant numbers plummeting 30 percent between 2007 and 2014.

While much of the demand for ivory comes from Asia, Europe also has a large market. A ban on the commercial trade in ivory across international borders has been in effect since 1990, but many countries continue to allow the domestic buying and selling of ivory. While it’s unclear how much legal ivory has been bought and sold within European Union borders in recent years, about 7.6 tons of legal ivory have been exported from the EU since 2003, according to the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). The UK exports more legal ivory than any other country in the world, according to an EIA analysis.

In August 2017 when the EIA published this analysis, executive director Mary Rice said, “UK ivory exports are stimulating consumer demand globally, especially in Hong Kong and China, two of the world’s largest markets for both legal and illegal ivory.” (China shut down its legal ivory market on December 31, 2017, and Hong Kong announced an end to its market in 2021.)

“As well as fueling demand for ivory, the UK’s legal trade provides opportunities for the laundering of illegal ivory, both within the country and internationally,” Rice said at the time.

Conservationists argue that a legal trade provides cover for smugglers and traffickers to “launder” poached ivory by giving it paperwork that makes it appear to have been obtained legally.

The UK’s ivory ban, which still needs to be signed into law, applies to all ivory except items produced before 1947 with less than 10 percent ivory by volume, musical instruments made before 1975 with less than 20 percent ivory, rare antiques more than 100 years old (which must be assessed by a specialist first), and certain items traded between accredited museums.

These exceptions are stricter than the U.S.’s ivory ban, which went into place in 2016 after a landmark joint announcement between the U.S. and China. The U.S. allows trade of ivory antiques more than a hundred years old and of items with up to 50 percent ivory, with a few other qualifying factors.

Conservation organizations have been working for several years to get an ivory ban approved in the UK. When this proposal was put up for consultation by the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, it received more than 70,000 responses, with more than 88 percent in favor of the ban.

“We are delighted that the government has listened to our concerns and given the overwhelming public response to their consultation is now moving decisively to introduce tough legislation to ban the trade in ivory in the UK,” said Charlie Mayhew, the CEO of Tusk Trust, a UK-based wildlife conservation organization.

Conservationists are now urging the EU as a whole to address the ivory trade.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org . Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.