US confirms additional steps to curb ivory trade

10 June 2016

Washington officials announced last week that the US would be banning nearly all domestic commercial trade of African elephant ivory, in a move that proponents say could help tackle poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking.

The news was confirmed by the country’s Fish and Wildlife Service, and is meant to fulfil an Executive Order issued by US President Barack Obama in 2013.

The revisions aim to allow for “more strictly controlling US trade in ivory, without unnecessarily restricting activities that have no conservation effect or are strictly regulated under other law.”

The final rule issued last week will ban foreign and interstate trade in African elephant ivory, with certain exceptions. For example, there are exceptions for certain pre-existing goods, such as musical instruments, that only contain a minimal level of ivory and meet other conditions. The new rules will also limit the import of African sport-hunted trophies to two per hunter annually.

The move is also geared to help meet the pledge made by Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting in Washington in September 2015, when they both agreed to take “significant and timely steps” to end their respective domestic commercial ivory trades. (See BioRes, 14 October 2015)

The United States is the world’s second largest consumer of illicit ivory behind China, and experts have long argued that a revision of existing policies is necessary, given the difficulties in distinguishing between legal and illegal ivory.

Conservation groups and proponents of the new rule have argued that earlier policies were too lax, allowing poachers to exploit gaps in those regulations to continue trafficking in illegal wildlife.

Daniel M. Ashe, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service told the New York Times that the “large fog of legal trade that has been concealing the illegal trade of ivory” will finally be lifted when the new final rule enters into force.

The decision has generally yielded a positive response from environmental groups. Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund, said the new regulations “send a strong signal to the international community that the US is committed to doing its part to save elephants in the wild,” and urged other countries to follow suit.

US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who serves as co-chair of the President’s Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, also said that she hoped other nations would act similarly to “quickly and decisively stop the flow of blood ivory.”

CITES COP forthcoming

The news also comes amid preparations for the next Conference of the Parties (COP17) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), where ivory trade is slated to be a topic for discussion.

The meeting is scheduled for 24 September to 5 October in Johannesburg, South Africa, with parties set to discuss proposals on possible changes in the classification of African elephant under the CITES “appendices.”

CITES aims to prevent the overexploitation of animal and plant species by ensuring international trade does not threaten their survival, covering over 35,000 listed species. These are listed in a series of appendices, depending on risk, which determine how their trade should be regulated. (See BioRes, 15 July 2014)

For example, Appendix I includes endangered species threatened with extinction, with trade in specimens of these species permitted only in exceptional circumstances, while Appendix II species are those which may not currently face the potential for extinction but may need controls to ensure this risk does not arise.

ICTSD reporting; “U.S. Bans Commercial Trade of African Elephant Ivory,” THE NEW YORK TIMES, 2 June 2016; “Huge News for Elephants: U.S. Bans Ivory Trade,” ECOWATCH, 3 June 2016; “US Adopts Near Total Ban on Ivory Trade,” THE GUARDIAN, 2 June 2016; “African Elephants ‘Killed Faster Than They are Born,’” THE GUARDIAN, 3 March 2016; “South Africa an Outlier on Ivory Policies,” NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, 13 January 2016.

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