By Peter LaFontaine
There are millions of elephants in the United States, but you won’t find them roaming Yellowstone.
Instead, they spend their days gathering dust in silver cabinets, getting smacked by cues on pool tables, and hanging on walls as trophies from far-flung hunts.
We’re talking about ivory, of course, and about hides, hair, and the other elephant body parts that Americans have brought to these shores from Africa, like so many beetles scavenging a continent to the bone.
On July 25, the Obama administration took a crucial step toward protecting living elephants in the wild, but first we need to look back to understand how we got to this point.
For a time, the U.S. was the landing spot for most of the world’s ivory exports, with entire cities based around the manufacture and sale of billiard balls, piano keys, and hundreds of other products made from elephant tusks.
For all its popularity, ivory inevitably gave way to cheaper and better replacements; modern synthetic materials such as plastics were simply more functional.
But ivory never lost its decorative value, and tourists, retailers, and collectors continued to import statues and tusks long after the manufacturing economy had moved on.
By the time the American environmental movement had begun to gather strength, elephant populations in Africa were already at a historic ebb, and in 1978 the species was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
Out of an estimated high of ten million at the turn of the 20th century, around 300,000 remained in 1990.
Not all of this was America’s doing, of course, but demand in the U.S. had helped drive the industrialization of elephant hunting, and a massive market remained for carvings and trophies.
Recognizing this bloody legacy, in 1988 Congress passed the African Elephant Conservation Act (which limited domestic ivory imports and exports, among other things), and a year later the U.S. helped drive the adoption of an international trade ban on most—but not all—African elephant products.
The partial ban, along with dedicated, on-the-ground conservation efforts, turned the free fall around and lifted elephant populations almost 50 percent over the next 15 years.
But then, in the mid-2000s, two ill-considered sales of stockpiled ivory to Japan and China helped trigger renewed consumer demand and another surge in poaching.
Now here we stand, in 2015, facing the real possibility of regional extinctions within the next decade.
In response, on July 25 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed new regulations on the domestic ivory trade, capping what the agency deems is a “near-total ban” on imports, exports, and sales. (FWS had already made two complementary rule changes in 2014).
The regulations are designed to eliminate the so-called “grey market.” Under the previous system, any ivory in the country was for all intents and purposes legal. It didn’t matter whether a carving was 200 years old or fresh off a poached elephant; if it got past border inspectors (as thousands of pieces did every year), it was fair game to sell.
With extinction looming, and the poaching crisis linked to militant groups and national security threats, the U.S. government has made fixing this broken system a priority.
It’s important to note that the new FWS proposal wouldn’t close every loophole. Trophy hunters can still bring back two dead elephants each year, despite evidence refuting wildly exaggerated claims that this grim practice has conservation value.
The rules also still allow sales of antiques and of certain newer items that contain less than 200 grams (about a half pound) of ivory—as long as the seller can prove the age and provenance.
FWS carved out this latter exemption after blowback from retailers, gun owners, and musicians, among other interested parties. Exemptions like these, while politically expedient, also serve to muddy the waters about what, exactly, is legal ivory and what is not.
Other questions swirl in those waters: When will the law go into effect? What sort of document proves that a carving is truly old? Will there be funding for enforcement?
Perhaps most important, how will China respond to this announcement? The U.S. needs to act—we have a significant ivory market here, one of the world’s biggest—but American initiative alone won’t come near to solving this disaster.
If China follows the U.S.’s lead on exemptions with carve-outs of their own, it could render this just another exercise in sound and fury.
The public has 60 days to weigh in on the new FWS plan before the agency, sometime in the not-too-distant future, releases a final rule governing the U.S. ivory trade.
Speaking as an elephant advocate, I believe the proposal aims too low in certain areas. But speaking as someone who has worked on conservation policy in Washington, D.C., for nearly a decade, I realize that this may be our best chance to shield elephants from our worst impulses.
Americans should support the crucial advances made by FWS in this new proposal, while also pushing for the strongest possible final outcome.
We don’t have time to waste.
Peter LaFontaine is a Campaigns Officer at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).