The California Case of an Antique Ivory Collector v. African Elephants

So far, the state isn’t bowing to the demands of one man who is trying to dismantle its ivory ban.
Herd of African elephants

Johan Sjolander/iStock

Until it was amended in 2015, California’s state ivory ban had a loophole that cost many lives. Its primary victims were those same beleaguered African elephants the law was written to protect. The loophole allowed the continued sale of ivory imported into the state before 1977, so it encouraged vendors to disguise new ivory with stains and carvings to make it look old—and further fueled Africa’s poaching crisis.

Revised with the help of NRDC—which conducted extensive legal research to pinpoint the murky language in the previous ban, then shared its findings with the California Department of Natural Resources—the state’s new law eliminates this loophole. California Fish and Game Code Section 2022 prevents trade in the teeth and tusks of elephants, hippopotamuses, mammoths, mastodons, walrus, warthogs, whales, and narwhals, as well as rhinoceros horn in any form (e.g., raw, worked, powdered, etc.). Advertising the sale of any of these items is also prohibited.

While wildlife defenders celebrate the revised ban, Godfrey Harris, an antiques collector and executive director of a group called the Ivory Education Institute, does not. Harris considers himself its victim—and is fighting the ban in court.

Since he began collecting at age 11, Harris, now 80, admits to having amassed so many antique ivory pieces, he’s lost count. When a CGTN America reporter asked him what he’ll do with his Los Angeles–based collection now that California’s state ivory ban prevents him from selling it legally, Harris responded, “Sure, you’ve heard of a black market?”

Still, Harris makes it clear he prefers not to go underground with his wares. He and the Ivory Education Institute have already challenged the ban in court. Last November, the Los Angeles Superior Court upheld the law, denying his claim that it was unconstitutional.

“Because we won at the trial court level, the law took effect and remains in effect,” says attorney Jen Sorenson of NRDC’s litigation team. But now she must gear up for the next round of the fight, since Harris filed an appeal of the trial court’s decision in the California State Court of Appeal in May.

As a longstanding opponent of ivory restrictions in the United States, Harris claimed in a 2014 Los Angeles Times op-ed that collectors like him are being “vilified” by “draconian new laws,” when, he asserts, “today’s poaching problem has its roots in East Asia.”

Beyond defending his honor, Harris seems to object most fiercely to the restrictions on trade. “The suit brought by the Ivory Education Institute claims that people’s ivory will become valueless, which is not true,” says Sorenson. “There are still ways to recover economic value from your ivory under the law. You could donate it to a museum and potentially get a tax benefit, for example.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also encourages donations to help raise awareness of the illicit trade.

Ivory tusks and trinkets for sale in San Francisco's Chinatown, July 2015

Eric Risberg/AP/REX/Shutterstock

And despite Harris’s claim that the problem is rooted elsewhere, the demand from California and the killing and trafficking abroad are inextricably linked. California is home to the second-largest ivory market in the nation, and according to a 2015 NRDC-commissioned undercover investigation of the state’s ivory markets, up to 90 percent of the ivory for sale in Los Angeles and approximately 80 percent in San Francisco likely came from recently killed elephants.

Poachers kill about 96 elephants every day in Africa, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the groups that NRDC is representing in the latest legal battle. At this rate, African forest elephants will be extinct in less than a decade. But African governments don’t have the resources to deal with the issue alone, particularly when they must also grapple with the crime and poverty that exacerbate elephant poaching. “Every country that’s contributing to this poaching problem needs to be part of the solution,” says Elly Pepper, deputy director of NRDC’s Wildlife Trade Initiative.

At least for now, California is staying on the elephants’ side. Governor Jerry Brown added almost $2 million to the 2016–2017 budget of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to train officers on the enforcement of ivory crimes. People in California caught selling ivory and rhino horn are now fined up to $50,000 in criminal penalties and $10,000 in civil fines. They also face up to a year of jail time.

The ban is working. Late last year, CDFW seized 377 jewelry pieces labeled as mammoth ivory from Indonesia at an air cargo terminal in Los Angeles. In San Francisco, officers teamed up with the city’s district attorney’s office to inspect several local businesses that had been identified in the 2015 NRDC-commissioned investigation. They seized $500,000 worth of illicit artifacts, including a solid bone pagoda, ivory chess sets, and 55 small statues.

One ton of confiscated illegal ivory is gathered for New York's June 2015 ivory crush, an event held to raise awareness about the trade.

Richard Levine/Alamy

Outside of California, NRDC led the effort to put ivory bans into place in New York and Hawaii, the nation’s other top ivory markets. New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington have also passed ivory bans. “We’ve worked to extend federal restrictions on the ivory trade by adding state bans in the top ivory-consuming states,” says Pepper. “With Jen’s help, we were able to make the state bans bulletproof in terms of legal challenge.”

Sorenson points out that efforts to protect the world’s ecosystems are not new in California courts. “The California Supreme Court has recognized that California plays a role in reducing global environmental harms and wildlife crimes because of the interconnectedness of the environment and the importance of biodiversity to everybody,” she says.


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