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Investigation Reveals Major U.S. Ivory Market

Online Auction Sites Like eBay Popular Venues for Ivory Sales

Washington - Fifteen years after a global ban on elephant ivory trade went into effect, the United States remains a major market for ivory, with American consumers at home and abroad fueling the demand, a TRAFFIC investigation finds.

A study of both legal and illegal ivory markets in the United States was released today by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network of World Wildlife Fund and IUCN-The World Conservation Union. It is the first comprehensive review of the U.S. ivory market since the global ban on commercial trade was imposed in 1989.

TRAFFIC found that the United States has the highest rate of ivory seizures in the world and that much of the ivory caught at the borders is being brought into the country by individual consumers, often as souvenirs, jewelry and carvings. The growth of online commerce in the last decade has also created a new channel for the ivory trade, with Americans buying ivory from overseas dealers via the Internet with little oversight.

The study was released in advance of next month's meeting of 166 countries in Bangkok for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which administers the international ban on commercial trade in ivory. Discussions of how to better enforce the ban will be on the agenda.

"The United States has the dubious distinction of having one of the most active ivory markets in the world, with U.S. officials seizing ivory nearly five times more often at our borders in recent years than in any other country," said Simon Habel, director of TRAFFIC. "That indicates law enforcement is doing a good job of catching illegal imports despite limited resources. But it also means Americans are ignoring the law and continuing to fuel demand for ivory, rewarding poachers who prey on elephants."

TRAFFIC investigators examined U.S. government seizure records for ivory, researched the domestic U.S. ivory market and posed as prospective ivory buyers online to learn about the ease with which overseas ivory dealers get their goods across the U.S. border.

"The Internet has emerged as a major vehicle for selling ivory around the world, allowing anyone with a computer to buy and sell ivory anonymously. We're concerned by the high volume of ivory being bought by Americans online," Habel said. "When we posed online as potential buyers, ivory sellers and other buyers assured us that getting ivory into the United States is no problem."

Much of the overseas ivory being offered to Americans online appears to come from China, the country with the biggest illegal ivory market in the world, according to international trade records.

Between 1996 and 2002, the United States reported nearly five times as many seizures of illegal ivory as any other nation. The small quantities of ivory involved in most of the seizures suggests that the U.S. illegal ivory market consists mainly of consumers and travelers trying to bring personal amounts of ivory into the country, rather than large-scale smuggling, although in recent years there have been several cases of ivory confiscated the U.S. in commercial quantities. The data also indicate that U.S. law enforcement is successful in catching a significant amount of ivory entering illegally.

Not all trade in elephant ivory is illegal, and TRAFFIC found a thriving legal market in the United States as well. U.S. law allows for the import and sale of elephant ivory that is antique and certified as being in trade before the CITES ban went into effect. It is also legal for hunters to import ivory "trophies" from African countries that allow trophy hunting of elephants.

"American consumers need to know that buying ivory from overseas and bringing it into the United States without CITES permits is illegal, and that such purchases fuel poaching of elephants across Africa," Habel said. "In general, Americans should avoid buying ivory overseas."

With as many as 100,000 elephants a year slaughtered in Africa by poachers during the 1980s, the international community imposed the ivory ban through CITES in 1989. Ivory from Asian elephants had been banned from U.S. imports even earlier. The ban has been widely hailed for significantly reducing poaching and allowing African elephant populations to begin to recover.

Among TRAFFIC's findings:

  • Between 1995 and 2002, TRAFFIC found that more than 32,000 ivory items were legally imported into the country, the majority being ivory carvings and a smaller number of tusks, jewelry, ivory pieces and piano keys. But domestic trade of that ivory within the U.S. is only loosely regulated by individual states' laws, TRAFFIC found.
  • Between 1995 and 2002, TRAFFIC found that more than 8,300 ivory items were seized at the border or refused entry by law enforcement. These items were being shipped to the United States from more than 80 countries around the world.
  • An average of about 1,000 items per week are advertised as elephant ivory offered for sale on eBay during TRAFFIC's investigation. TRAFFIC found regular shipments of ivory carvings and jewelry being sold to U.S. customers over eBay from vendors in China under circumstances that may be illegal, with these web-based "stores" routinely shipping ivory to the U.S. via express delivery service and even offering to falsely label the shipments as containing bone.

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