The Elephant in the Room

A year after the president promised a national ivory ban, we're still waiting.

March 25, 2015

Photo: Steve Garvie/Flickr

A version of this story was originally published on February 13, 2014. It has been updated throughout to reflect the latest developments (or lack thereof).

An undercover agent walked into a jewelry store office in Midtown Manhattan three years ago and discovered a ton of illegal ivory—an actual ton.

The ivory was all that was left of more than 100 elephants that had been slaughtered for their tusks. Considering that only three state wildlife investigators cover all of New York City, the sting was a lucky break—but perhaps not a surprising one. New York, and the country as a whole, has an illegal ivory problem, one that is contributing to the very real threat that elephants could go extinct within a decade.

An elephant is killed in Africa every 15 minutes, and since 2002, their population in central Africa has seen a 76 percent decline. 

In February 2014, President Obama announced plans to impose a complete ban on the commercial sale of ivory in the United States, part of an executive order against the illegal wildlife trade. Owning ivory would still be OK—assuming it was purchased legally in the first place—but selling the white stuff would be a big no-no, unless it’s a “bona fide antique” of more than 100 years old (a fact sellers would have to prove).

Restrictions on ivory imports took effect immediately, but regulations regarding sales within the United States have yet to be realized, due mostly to administrative delays. The National Rifle Association, however, has been busy fighting state bans and pushing Congress to weaken the proposed rules and roll back the ones already in place. NRDC (disclosure) is concerned that, when issued, the regulations may be weaker than promised. (NRDC advocates are calling attention to the delay by asking supporters to urge the White House to make good on its pledge.)

Ivory imports have been banned worldwide since 1989, with an exception for pieces created before that year. The problem is, without expensive testing, it’s hard to tell how old ivory really is. This loophole provides a perfect cover for a black market of newly poached elephant parts.

“That trade is decimating iconic animal populations,” Obama wrote in a letter last year introducing the new National Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking. “Because of the actions of poachers, species like elephants and rhinoceroses face the risk of significant decline or even extinction. But it does not have to be that way.”

Poachers killed 35,000 elephants in 2012 alone, representing the highest rate of poaching since the 1989 ban. The carnage is a response to the continuing demand for bangles, statuettes, trinkets, and anything else made from tusks. Much of this ivory typically passes through Asia before being smuggled into the United States.

“Most people don’t realize that the United States is the second-biggest ivory market in the world, with epicenters in New York, California, and Hawaii,” says Elly Pepper, a policy advocate for NRDC. “By creating this national strategy, the U.S. is recognizing that we are part of the problem and that we’re going to step up our efforts to end this crisis.”

Obama’s actions follow a European Union resolution passed in January that calls for member states to place moratoria on all commercial imports, exports, and domestic sales and purchases of ivory. Last year France became the latest of several nations, including the United States, to destroy its stockpile when it crushed three tons of confiscated ivory at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. The country has also stiffened penalties and lengthened prison sentences for wildlife traffickers.

For U.S. enforcement officials, discerning the age of ivory being sold on store shelves and online, and thus its legality, isn't easy or cheap. “If everyone was honest, we wouldn’t have an issue,” said William Woody, assistant director of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, when he testified before the New York State Assembly last year. “If I was a shopkeeper, I’d lie.”

According to Woody and several New York enforcement officers testifying that day, documents are often falsified, and current legal penalties don’t dissuade criminals from selling ivory, which can bring in about $1,500 a pound. In response to the problem, New York enacted its own ban on the ivory trade last summer.

Bans have been effective before. When poaching rates skyrocketed in the 1980s, the United States and several other countries prohibited ivory imports in order to curb demand for the luxury item. It worked.

But in the last decade, the world has again experienced the dark side of “white gold,” with reports from abroad of elephant poisonings, murdered park rangers, and links to terrorist groups like Al Shabaab. With an estimated 96 elephants dying for their tusks every day, taking ivory off the market everywhere could be their last shot.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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