The UK government has announced a 12-week consultation to ban the sale and export of ivory objects entirely by 2018 with the aim of curbing the illicit trade and protecting African elephants from extinction. The surprise move is a reversal for the Conservative Party, which controversially dropped a pledge to stop the sale of ivory from its manifesto just before the June general election.
The current law, passed last year, allows ivory objects made before 1947 to be sold in the UK with no restrictions, but bans raw ivory. But the legislation contains some significant loopholes, wildlife advocates argue, including that carbon dating ivory objects is costly and unfeasible given the scale of the market, and that modern ivory is sometimes stained or artificially aged.
The proposed ban would exempt the trade and sale of ivory between museums, as well as musical instruments, objects of “historic, artistic or cultural value” and items containing “only a small proportion of ivory”, although the exact amount has not been defined.
UK-based antiques dealers, especially Asian art dealers, would be affected by a total ban on ivory. Rebecca Davies, the chief executive of The Association of Art and Antiques Dealers (LAPADA), told The Art Newspaper that the consultation period “provides us with the opportunity to submit clear and compelling evidence of the cultural and business impact of a ban under these terms—evidence that must be taken into account under parliamentary rules when considering the introduction of a new legislation”. Davies adds that “it is not simply a case of introducing whatever measures are passed, it is also a matter of how they are enforced, and we will discuss the options carefully to ensure that any system is effective without being draconian”.
The UK government estimates that the illegal wildlife trade generates up to £17 billion per year. Over 20,000 African elephants are poached for their tusks each year, and some of this ivory is falsely sold as mammoth ivory, which is still legal to trade in most countries, including in the UK and US. China’s State Council announced that it was banning all domestic trade in ivory by the end of this year. While ivory use for ornamental and practical purposes dates to prehistoric times, most of the modern industry uses ivory for minor objects of decorative value, furniture inlays and traditional Chinese medicine.
In an official statement, UK environment secretary Michael Gove says that “ivory should never be seen as a commodity for financial gain or a status symbol—so we want to ban its sale” and that the consultation puts “the UK front and centre of global efforts to end the insidious trade in ivory”.