By Fiona Gordon
In April Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta set fire to a stockpile of confiscated elephant ivory that amounted to the tusks of about 6,700 illegally killed elephants.
He did so in an effort to show his country’s commitment to saving Africa’s elephants, stating: “No-one, and I repeat no one, has any business in trading in ivory, for this trade means death of our elephants and death of our natural heritage.”
Kenyatta is not alone in his resolve. More than 20 other ivory producing and consuming countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe, as well as the United States, have destroyed ivory at public events to send a clear international message of zero tolerance to ivory poaching and smuggling.
China and the U.S., with two of the largest ivory markets, made a pact in 2015 to tackle wildlife crime and protect elephants. China has halted ivory imports and promised to close its domestic ivory market altogether, while the U.S. has tightened its ivory trading laws to the point where commercial trade has been practically completely squeezed out.
Just a few months ago the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) passed a historic resolution calling for the closure of global domestic elephant ivory markets where they contribute to illegal trading or poaching.
Despite these international commitments and actions, it appears that New Zealand, a party to CITES, considers ivory trading to be an acceptable business.
And it’s a business made up of far more that just a few old ivory-handled cutlery sets, billiard balls, or antique ivory inlay furniture.
A recent study by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) reported that 64 percent of the 1,318 ivory lots for sale at auction houses in New Zealand and Australia were made entirely of ivory, including carvings, figures, jewelry, okimonos (decorative objects), netsukes (small sculptural objects), and raw and carved tusks.
At New Zealand auction houses, one elephant tusk fetched $2,032 (NZD $2,900) at Art+Objects, another, at Cordy’s Fine Arts, went for $5,080 and an elephant ivory figure sold at Dunbar Sloane for $3,328.
It’s clear that demand for ivory in New Zealand remains high. It’s the same kind of demand that drives the current elephant poaching crisis in Africa.
Ivory Origins Unknown
Of concern is that exactly where all the ivory items on the New Zealand domestic market came from, or how old they are, is anyone’s guess. Despite a strict international import and re-export permitting regime, equating broadly to an international ban on commercial ivory trade since 1989, there are no legal requirements within New Zealand for domestic ivory traders to provide any provenance information.
Provenance refers to the record of an object’s history and origin and may include documents such as import permits, purchase receipts, old photographs, wills, or signed affidavits. The IFAW study reported that only 8 percent of the catalog descriptions for the 1,318 ivory lots surveyed included comments on provenance.
Patrick Cooper, of Napier, about 180 miles north of New Zealand’s capital city Wellington, made the most of this situation, laundering illegally imported African elephant ivory items into the New Zealand market before his December 2015 conviction.
Court documents substantiate that he never applied for a CITES permit to trade in elephant ivory, yet he imported some 20 ivory items worth about $12,614, and won 66 eBay auctions for items described as “ox bone” or “faux ivory” (terms commonly used as code words to describe elephant ivory).
Cooper was caught out only after an African elephant tusk he had purchased from France was detected at the international mail center in Auckland, and New Zealand authorities seized four African elephant ivory items during their investigation of him.
He was fined $5,606, and the New Zealand Department Of Conservation reported, “This conviction sends a message to other would-be offenders that illegally trading in elephant ivory is not worth the risk.”
Further details of Cooper’s dealings were revealed on October 26 with the conviction of a Californian man, Shahram Roohparvar, as detailed in the court documents:
“USFWS initiated an investigation, in the course of which it obtained the emails between Cooper and defendant. These emails, like others defendant sent and received, established defendant’s scheme, and his knowledge that he was evading the law. Cooper and defendant had the following exchange, which establishes defendant’s knowledge of the rules. Cooper wrote: What’s it made from? Roohparvar replied: “it is elephant ivory.”
Cooper followed up: What happens if customs seizes them.” Roohparvar responded: “visit my main site…most listings are ivory and I ship lots of them overseas and so far hadn’t [sic] faced in any problem. In case they get seized probably I split losses with you.” Cooper bought the ivory for $1950, and defendant sent it to him through United States Postal Service. Defendant declared the item as a “small Japanese ornament” and valued it at $59.
Shahram Roohparvar was sentenced to a custodial term of three months plus three months in a location-monitoring program and two years supervised release. He was also ordered to pay a total fine of just over $40,000.
If it wasn’t clear before, it is now that New Zealand is part of the international illegal trade in ivory: During the past four years, three convictions have connected New Zealand’s dirty business directly to the U.S., U.K., and France.
Commendably, the New Zealand delegation to the 2016 CITES Conference of the Parties in Johannesburg voted in support of the closure of global domestic ivory markets that contribute to illegal trade or poaching.
Authorities must now be investigating where exactly the other tens of elephant ivory items that Patrick Cooper imported into New Zealand have gone.
Should poaching for ivory continue and elephant populations continue to decline at the 8 percent rate estimated for 2010–2014, the areas surveyed during the Great Elephant Census will lose half their savanna elephants every nine years, and extirpation of some populations is possible.
It’s conceivable that a mere 175,000 African elephants could remain by 2025. Finding an elephant roaming the vast African continent would then be a needle-in-a-haystack safari experience.
As Africa continues to lose one elephant every 15 minutes to the illegal ivory trade, on the other side of the world in New Zealand, seemingly unconcerned—or perhaps uninformed—buyers continue to spend tens of thousands of dollars each year perpetuating a lucrative, unregulated and unmonitored, domestic ivory trade.
Fiona Gordon is an environmental policy analyst based in New Zealand. As director of Gordon Consulting she specializes in resource management policy and planning, the development and management of environmental and wildlife projects, and research into wildlife trade issues. She is the principal researcher and co-author of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s September 2016 report “Under the Hammer – Are Auction Houses in Australia and New Zealand Contributing to the Demise of Elephants and Rhinos?”