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The U.S. Just Announced an Unprecedented Ban on African Ivory

Will tighter rules help reduce global demand?

New restrictions will make it harder to sell ivory from African elephants. (Richard Towell (Flickr/Creative Commons))
smithsonian.com

What’s the best way to protect elephants? One way is refusing to buy ivory—demand for the material stokes poaching, which has demolished elephant populations in Africa. Now, the United States is taking an even stronger stance on ivory in a bid to protect the majestic creatures. As Jada F. Smith reports for The New York Times, the United States will now almost totally ban the sale of African elephant ivory.

Despite local and international efforts to track down and stop poachers and halt the ivory trade, it’s still rampant throughout Africa. Ninety-six elephants die per day for the sake of ivory, reports Smith, and illegal poaching threatens even elephants in protected areas of Africa. Though ivory was banned internationally in 1989, up to 30,000 elephants die every year in what Deutsche Welle’s Ruby Russell calls “a renewed poaching crisis.”

But now, thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. will contribute less to the problem. The agency will enforce a 2013 executive order by President Obama aimed at combating wildlife trafficking. In a release about the ban, it explains that it will now limit imports, exports and sales of African ivory across state lines.

The proposed rule will significantly restrict the ivory trade in the U.S. In a guidance note, the agency lays out a number of changes in policy. Non-commercial imports of sport-hunted trophies will be limited to two per year, and commercial imports of ivory will be limited only to objects that qualify as antique under strict guidelines.

Worked elephant ivory that was legally acquired and removed from the wild before 1976 must be either part of a household or inheritance, a musical instrument or a traveling exhibition to be exported non-commercially. Foreign and interstate commerce will also be dramatically restricted—only antiques and items that contain a small amount of ivory can be purchased.

Will the United States’ actions really make a difference? It depends. Most ivory poaching is fueled by demand in Asia, and policymakers have historically had difficulty figuring out how best to reduce demand in countries like China.

However, a 2015 study by National Geographic and GlobeScan revealed that 13 percent of Americans are “likely buyers” of ivory who are responsible for fueling demand. The report found that in the U.S., a belief that buying small pieces of ivory doesn’t contribute to demand actually drives the ivory trade. So do perceptions that the government is already protecting elephants.

With tighter rules, the latter may be true—but when it comes to illegal ivory, there’s always more to be done.

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