The laws and legality regarding the ivory trade in the United States consist of a long web of complicated and not quite so clear issues. Let me break it down for you so that you can understand the issue on a national and state level.
What are the federal regulations regarding the ivory trade?
African Elephant number estimates in 1979 were 1.3 million. About ten years later, the population was down to 650,000. Due to a global ban in the ivory trade in 1989 this helped curb the trade significantly. The only imports allowed into the United States were either antiques (over 100 years old), or trophy tusks (yes, elephants are legally trophy hunted). The only other imports or trade allowed were one-off sales of the existing stockpiles, regulated by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, (CITES). Two one-off sales were granted to China and Japan in 1999 and 2008, and it is believed that this is part of why the value of ivory and the illegal killing of elephants has once again sky-rocketed. Elephant numbers are now currently down to 450,000.
Prior to President Obama’s Executive Order in February of 2014, antique ivory was still legally imported into the United States. The selling of antique ivory or ivory imported prior to 1989 (when the global ban happened) within the states and across state borders was legal. Under the current Executive Order or federal permissions, antique ivory is no longer allowed to be imported, but still may be exported. The reason why this is important is because since elephants are still being killed for their tusks, there is constantly a flow of new ivory. The antique and pre-ban ivory, or the legal trade, is masking the illegal ivory trade. Unless you are an expert, it is almost impossible to distinguish the difference between the two. In fact, sellers that are selling illegal ivory are using techniques to stain the ivory to make it look antique! The EO also states that we cannot trade from state to state (interstate). Unfortunately importing trophy hunted tusks is still legal, but the EO limits this to two trophies per year. Obama also created a Wildlife Task Force that will be responsible to all wildlife trade as well as enforcement, which is key. The onus is also on the owner or seller, meaning they must have the legal permits stating when the piece was imported legally (if they have it). What the EO does not cover is intrastate trade, or what goes on within each state. This means that antique ivory and pre-ban ivory are still legal to sell within states, creating that shadow to cover the illegal market. The law is even worse in California.
Did you know that it is currently legal to sell ivory in California?
In 1976 California established one of the strongest laws banning the importation for commercial purposes, possession with intent to sell, or sale of any elephant part. In 1977 uncodified language of the annotated portion of the law, penal code 653o, created a large loophole, basically saying that any ivory imported into the state before 1977 is legal. Further, Department of Fish and Game does not take responsibility for enforcing the current law because it is penal code, those of which are typically enforced by police officers, sheriff deputies and other peace officers throughout the state. In addition, neither the California Fish and Game Code, nor the state wildlife regulations enforced by the Department of Fish and Wildlife reference elephants or elephant products.
How are we going to stop this?
If you haven’t already seen it in the news, according to a 2008 investigation by Daniel Stiles, it was found that the United States was the number two importer of illegal ivory. The top states? New York, California, and Hawaii. The top cities in California? Los Angeles and San Francisco. The most current investigation conducted in the spring of 2014 found that up to 80% of the ivory being sold in 30 markets in San Francisco was likely illegal. Also, since the 2008 report, illegal ivory products have doubled in CA, showing a parallel trend to the slaughter happening in Africa. In August of 2014 both New York and New Jersey banned the selling and purchasing of ivory within their states. California, amongst other states such as Hawaii, Florida and several others, intend to do the same.
On January 7th 2015, Assembly Bill 96 (#AB96) was introduced in California. Why 96? One elephant in Africa is killed every 15 minutes, 96 per day, and roughly 35,000 elephants per year. If this rate continues, entire populations of elephants, including the African Forest Elephant will be gone within 15 years. This state ban will make it illegal to sell and purchase ivory within the state regardless of the year or if it is antique. However, there are some minor exemptions. Bona-fide antiques (over 100 years old) can be sold but only if under 5% of volume of the piece is ivory. Most bona-fide antiques, are less than 5% ivory. Most current ivory products are jewelry, trinkets, and statues, the majority of these pieces are 100% ivory. Also musical instruments manufactured before 1975 and less than 20% ivory will be exempt as well. Currently, most piano keys are made out of plastic. The rationale behind these exemptions is that these items are not the major contributors to the ivory trade. The figurines and jewelry that are comprised of almost all ivory is the real issue.
What will AB 96 do?
AB 96 will close the existing loophole in the CA law by apealing the penal code. Further, it will add enforcement responsibility to the Fish and
Game Code, making California Fish and Wildlife authorities accountable for the enforcement. Penalties, including jail time and hefty fines will be given to those found selling or purchasing illegal ivory. Also, AB 96 includes all types of ivory (narwhal, whale, hippo, walrus, mammoth), and rhinoceros horn. Rhino horn, which is made up of keratin or skin just like ours, is desired specifically in Vietnam where it is believed to have medicinal purposes (that has never been proven). Rhino horn has been found in the United States as well. There are only 28,000 rhinos left in the world! California has the opportunity here to set an example to the rest of the nation and the world making it clear that we do not support trade in ivory or rhino horn.
What is Oakland Zoo doing?
A year ago, Oakland Zoo joined forces with the Wildlife Conservation Society, who founded the 96 elephants campaign, to raise awareness to the plight of elephants and the ivory trade. Joining the coalition for AB 96, which includes the key players, Humane Society of the United States, National Resources Defense Council, Wildlife Conservation Society, California Associations of Zoos and Aquariums, amongst several other supporting NGO’s, including our friends at the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), and dozens of other conservation partners including our own here at the zoo.
As part of the coalition, we are responsible for the support of AB 96, which includes heightening the awareness surrounding the issue through social media, blogs, and zoo tabling, asking our visitors to take action through petitions and sending letters to their district legislators, lobbying our Bay Area district offices, supporting other CAZA member institutions and working together to be the strongest force we can to make change. If you’d like to help, here is a current action you can take.
**Send a letter to your district legislators thanking them for either supporting the bill or asking them to support it. Use this pre-written template: www.96elephants.org/california . It takes only 30 seconds!**
On Tuesday, March 10th AB 96 successfully passed out of the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee and is on to the Appropriations Committee! ACTION: If you are a constituent in the districts of the members of the Appropriations Committee, please write to them asking them to support the bill! To find your district rep, go here: http://findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov/. Visit here to see who is on the Appropriations Committee: http://apro.assembly.ca.gov/membersstaff. To stay in touch with the bill status, check here: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/15-16/bill/asm/ab_0051-0100/ab_96_bill_20150126_status.html. To read the bill literature read here: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/15-16/bill/asm/ab_0051-0100/ab_96_bill_20150107_introduced.pdf.
Stay tuned for monthly blog updates on the bill and it’s status and don’t forget to #ab96! Join us for Feasts for the Beasts and learn more about our African Elephants here at Oakland Zoo. Main Entrance doors open early at 9:00am for the first 250 guests donating produce. A golden ticket to spread produce in the elephant exhibit will be administered. Once all food is in place, guests will exit the exhibit to watch the elephants enjoy their treats. Stick around after the elephant feeding and explore the Zoo (http://www.oaklandzoo.org/Calendar_Item.php?i=1141).