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Illegal ivory and the UK

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall joins calls for a strict ban on the illegal ivory trade
African elephant matriarchy

The UK government has announcement a much-anticipated public consultation on plans to impose stricter controls on our ivory trade.

In response, campaigners and conservationists have united to call for a global effort to end the illegal ivory trade, which is driving the alarming decline of Africa’s elephant population.

WWF has said that s ban on the UK’s elephant ivory trade ‘must be confirmed within the next 12 months if the country is to maintain its role as a global leader on ending the illegal wildlife trade’.

‘No time to waste’

It’s almost exactly a year until the 2018 London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade, where it’s expected that world leaders will agree to strengthen the delivery of international commitments to help eradicate illegal wildlife trade and better protect the world’s wildlife from this threat.

‘The government’s plans show the UK wants to continue to be a leader in the fight to end the large scale poaching of elephants. After campaigning hard to stop the UK ivory trade, we know there’s a long way to go and there’s no time to waste. Whilst discussions roll on, 55 African elephants a day are killed. We need to be the generation that ends the illegal ivory trade once and for all.

‘This illegal trade involving organised criminals is a global problem requiring global solutions: to end it anywhere means ending it everywhere. This is about a lot more than banning ivory sales in one country. It means working with global leaders and communities around the world, particularly in China and south-east Asia, to implement bans and stop the illegal trade.’


The current law

Much of the ivory trade has already been banned in the UK, but there are some exceptions when trading an ‘antique’, meaning ivory that was worked (substantially carved) before March 1947, or with a government issued certificate for ‘modern’ items, worked between 1947 and 1990. All trade in ivory carved post-1990 and in raw (uncarved) ivory is already banned.

Cristián Samper, CEO and president of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), noted that ‘Illegal ivory hides behind ‘legal’ ivory, and the UK still allows a significant domestic ‘legal’ ivory market.’

Samper added: ‘The implementation of a strict ban without loopholes that traders can exploit is essential in the fight against the poaching of elephants and the trafficking in their ivory. The only way to save elephants, in addition to strong field and enforcement work, is to ban ivory sales to prevent any opportunities for such laundering.’

The UK’s role in the ivory trade

It is estimated that around 20,000 African elephants are killed by poachers for their ivory every year. Although the UK is not considered to be one of the markets that contributes the most to the global illegal ivory trade, evidence has revealed that the UK’s legal ivory market has been used as a cover for trade in illegal ivory.

Evidence of laundering was shown last autumn during the BBC Saving Africa’s Elephants: Hugh and the Ivory War programme. Four of nine ‘antique’ ivory carvings for sale online were found to be illegal, as they were found to be from elephants that had died after the 1947 cut-off date for antiques. Two of nine were illegal as they were older ivory that had been reworked recently.

The UK also makes legal shipments of ivory antiques to Asia, which has the largest ivory markets that are driving the poaching crisis. There has been a dramatic increase in the amount of legal ivory being re-exported from the UK to China since 2005. This shows that the UK’s current policies must be strengthened.

‘In my documentary series Saving Africa’s Elephants: Hugh and the Ivory War, broadcast a year ago on BBC 1, I uncovered incontrovertible evidence that ivory pieces from the UK were being exported, both legally and illegally to Asia, to be sold in the very same markets that we know are dealing in recently poached African ivory.

‘I challenged the Conservative Government to act on their manifesto promise of a total ban on ivory sales in the UK. Their initial response was a weak piece of window dressing. But this latest announcement has the wording and the framework to do the job properly.

‘It is vital that in the upcoming 12 week consultation that the well-documented research and detailed submissions or organisations like Stop Ivory are fully taken on board, and that the four categories of proposed exemptions do not become loopholes that allow the continued trading of UK historical ivory.

‘As long as ivory of any age or status is traded for profit, in the UK or any other market, it will help fuel the demand and desirability of ivory worldwide.

‘Only a concerted global effort to reduce the demand for ivory will be effective in reducing the horrendous slaughter of African elephants and the disastrous decline in the elephant population.

‘Having witnessed the tragedy of elephant poaching in Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya in my films, and tracked both poached ivory and UK historic ivory to its destinations in Hong Kong, China and Vietnam, I know that the UK must ban ivory sales to play its full part in the international effort to save the elephant.’

Chef, journalist, food writer and campaigner on food and environmental issues

Public opinion

A recent poll by Populus for WWF showed that 75% of the UK public back a ban on the ivory trade in the UK, while 9 out of 10 respondents said they are concerned about the threat to elephants caused by poaching.

The consultation will be the first time in history that the UK public has been given the opportunity to comment officially on ivory trade regulations. During the 12-week government consultation, organisations and individuals can voice their opinions and offer evidence on the impact of the UK’s ivory trade.

The consultation follows the Conservative Party’s pledge to press for the end of ivory sales in its 2010 manifesto – a promise that was reiterated in 2015.

Progress so far

In the last 12 months there has been significant global progress to reduce demand for elephant ivory and stem elephant poaching.

  • In December 2016 China, home to the world’s largest legal and illegal ivory markets, announced it will ban domestic trade by the end of 2017
  • In July 2016 the US introduced a near-total ban
  • In December 2016 Hong Kong, the largest city market for ivory, announced its timetable for closing its domestic market. In June 2017 a bill was launched to ban the ivory trade by 2021
  • In March 2017 Singapore announced it will consider banning its ivory trade

Click here to sign the WWF petition calling on the UK government to help stop the elephant poaching crisis.

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