The UK has one of the world’s largest domestic ivory markets. We imported ivory from more than one million dead elephants, mainly in colonial times, to be turned into carvings, billiard balls, hair brush handles, piano keys and other household goods. A lot of that ivory is still around and is in demand.
People in some places such as China and Hong Kong are keen to buy antiques from the UK. Between 2010-15, the UK was the largest exporter of antique ivory pieces in the world, exporting far more than anyone else; in particular, we were the largest exporter to China and Hong Kong.
Our trade in ivory, at home and abroad, fuels consumer demand and reinforces ivory’s social acceptability. It also means we cannot tell other countries about the need to close their markets when we do nothing about our own.
In addition, there is widespread consensus that legal domestic ivory markets provide a means for criminals to launder new, poached ivory, so undermining enforcement efforts. It is difficult to differentiate between old and new ivory once it has been carved, especially when various techniques can be used to artificially age ivory to make it look antique.
The UK’s existing rules are nowhere near tough enough, allowing sales of ivory from before 1947 with very slack regulations when it comes to proving its age. Even these relaxed rules are regularly broken (innocently or deliberately) by people buying and selling ivory and need to be drastically tightened:
- there is clear evidence many traders do not comply with the need to provide proof of the age of ivory pieces
- there is rampant online trade with little or no regulation
- due primarily to lack of resources, little effort is made to enforce the current rules, resulting in a very low risk of prosecution, compounded by lenient sentences for convictions.
Countries such as the USA have already restricted ivory sales and many countries in Africa, who are on the frontline of the poaching war, are asking us to close our market. Their iconic wildlife is key to their tourism industries and the future development and prosperity of communities – we should respond to their requests for our help.
Many people are surprised to hear that selling ivory is still legal in the UK. There is overwhelming public support for the trade to be closed down, as well as significant support from MPs of all parties for much tighter rules. The Government now seems determined to take tough action, which we welcome.