Making a Killing: California Ivory Sales Largely Illegal, Contributing to Recent Rise in African Elephant Poaching

NRDC-Commissioned Report Finds Up to 90 Percent of Ivory in Los Angeles and 80 percent in San Francisco Likely Illegal

SAN FRANCISCO (January 7, 2015) – Every 15 minutes, an African elephant is killed for its tusks. And some of that ivory ends up right here on store shelves in California.

According to a report commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Elephant Ivory Trafficking in California, USA, up to 90 percent of the ivory for sale in Los Angeles and approximately 80 percent in San Francisco is likely illegal under California law, meaning that much of the ivory being sold in the Golden State comes from recently killed elephants and is directly tied to their massacre on the other side of the globe. Report author and ivory expert Daniel Stiles also found that the proportion of likely illegal ivory in California has roughly doubled – from approximately 25 percent in 2006 to about 50 percent in 2014 – since his last survey just eight years ago.

“It’s absolutely astonishing how much ivory is being sold, in large part illegally, here in California,” said Elly Pepper, an NRDC wildlife advocate. “I think if people realized that the pieces being displayed right now on local store shelves most often come from elephants that were killed in recent years, they’d be shocked and outraged. But most people don’t know that the great majority of ivory products these days are altered to look like antiques in order to appear legitimate.”

More than 100,000 elephants were killed by poachers between 2010 and 2012, leading some scientists to predict that African forest elephants could be extinct within the decade. Under California law, it’s illegal to import, possess with intent to sell, or sell any elephant part. But a loophole allows the purchase and sale of ivory imported prior to 1977. So many items are advertised as antiques or crafted to look older so they’ll appear legal under California law. However, a bill introduced today (AB 96) in the California State Assembly by Speaker Toni Atkins and principal co-author Senator Ricardo Lara, seeks to close that loophole and proposes a near-total ban on ivory in California, similar to the ban New York signed into law this past August.

The United States is the world’s second-largest market for ivory. And two of California’s most populous cities – San Francisco and Los Angeles – rank in the top three domestic ivory markets with the highest proportions of illegal ivory. In the report, Stiles investigated more than 100 vendors in L.A. and the Bay area selling more than 1,250 ivory items.

While it’s difficult to reliably date ivory (carbon dating and DNA testing are the only foolproof methods), the report investigator estimated the proportion of illegal ivory he saw based on his vast experience visually dating pieces.

·         In Los Angeles:

o   77 – 90 percent of the ivory seen was likely illegal under California law

o   47 – 60 percent could have been illegal under federal law

·         In San Francisco:

o   approximately 80 percent of the ivory was likely illegal under California law

o   52 percent could have been illegal under federal law

“This report shows that too much ivory is slipping through the cracks under the current law and putting elephants’ lives at risk,” Pepper said. “It’s time for California to change its law. In a state that does so much for animals and wildlife, we simply must do more to protect the lives of elephants.”


California’s ivory law

In addition to federal ivory laws, California passed its own law regarding ivory transactions in 1976 (California Penal Code section 653o), which makes it unlawful to import, possess with intent to sell, or sell any elephant part. However, uncodified language in the annotated portion of the code creates an exception for elephant parts imported prior to June 1, 1977, significantly weakening the law’s practical impact. This loophole has made the law impossible to enforce. Additionally, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife does not believe it is responsible for enforcing 653o because it is contained in the Penal Code, provisions of which are typically enforced by police officers, sheriff deputies and other peace officers throughout the state, and because neither the California Fish and Game Code nor state wildlife regulations enforced by the Department of Fish and Wildlife reference elephants or elephant products.

Assembly Bill 96 (so named because 96 elephants are killed every day in Africa), which was introduced today by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins and Senator Ricardo Lara, eliminates the pre-1977 loophole in California’s ivory law that has facilitated the state’s illegal ivory trade and bans the sale, offer for sale, possession with intent to sell, and importation with intent to sell of elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn. There are a few exceptions, including transfers to legal heirs, musical instruments comprised of less than 20 percent of ivory or rhino horn, and bona fide antiques comprised of less than 5% of ivory or rhino horn. The bill also increases penalties for those trafficking in ivory and rhino horn to up to $50,000 or an amount equal to two times the value of the wildlife involved in the violation, whichever is greater, and/or one year in prison.



·         Full report (hi-res images available)

·         “California Introduces Bill to Help End California’s Contribution to the Elephant & Rhino Poaching Crisis” – by Elly Pepper, January 2015

·         “Ivory: The Elephant in the Room” – On Earth, February 2014

·         U.S. Fish & Wildlife Q &A page about ivory


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