Ivory Laws and Regulations

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The dramatic intersection of the ivory trade with elephant conservation efforts has resulted in an international consensus for ivory regulation, beginning in the 1970s and continuing to the present day. In 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) became the only global treaty to ensure that international trade in plants and animals does not threaten elephants’ survival in the wild. Regulation aims to protect both African (Loxodonta africana) and Asian (Elephas maximus) elephant species and sub-species. CITES provides a framework for cooperation and collaboration among nations to prevent decline in wild populations and plants. Currently 180 countries, including the U.S., implement CITES regulations. Although legally binding on the parties (countries that have voluntarily agreed to be bound by the convention), CITES regulations do not take the place of national laws. The CITES Ivory Control System focuses on ivory trade.

Recent Laws & Regulations

With a crisis of possible extinction of African elephants in the next decade or two (according to the Africa Elephant Summit held in April 2015 in Kasane, Botswana), in 2013 and 2014, the U.S. and other nations have stepped up laws and regulations to combat the rise in trafficking of ivory, including trade of ivory works and artifacts.

  • In 2013, while visiting Tanzania, President Obama issued an executive order committing the US to increase efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. This executive order led to new federal regulations, including a series of administrative actions with different timelines, to implement a nearly complete ban on commercial African elephant ivory of any age into the United States. Executive orders engage the entire U.S. government, including the Department of Defense and all federal agencies. However, federal laws cannot stop ivory from being sold within a state’s borders.
  • The Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, convened February 13, 2014, in London to discuss key actions to eliminate the illegal wildlife trade.
  • In 2014, the United States, the second largest market in the world (after China), strengthened sanctions on importing African ivory, including antique ivory (older than 100 years).
  • In February 2014, the U.S. Interior Department Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced that it would ban the trade in African elephant ivory within the U.S. by prohibiting all commercial imports and exports of raw and worked ivory, regardless of age and to include re-sales by auction houses and other art dealers.
  • Since February 2014, 12 individual U.S. states – California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont – have introduced bills to comply with new FWS regulations to ban the commerce of African ivory. New Jersey and New York have been the most assertive states and have already implemented state laws prohibiting elephant ivory commerce. For more information about bills and laws in individual states, see: Wildlife Conservation Society State Bills

The reasons for the increased restrictions in 2014, as explained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are the fact that the U.S. is the second largest ivory market in the world and that the legal transit of documented ivories frequently provides a cover for illegal transit and trafficking of illegally obtained ivory.

In response to the new regulations for African elephant ivory, in 2015 AIC published the position paper, “The Preservation of Cultural Property with respect to U.S. Government Regulation of African Elephant Ivory.” The paper aims to present a balanced approach that supports elephant conservation efforts and respects laws that halt illegal trafficking of new raw and worked ivory, while also advocating for protecting permitted (pre-Convention, CITES, and ESA documented) worked ivories of documented provenance from unnecessary destruction, destructive testing, and possible confiscation. AIC position paper: African elephant ivory

Impact of 2014 Regulations on Museums and Collectors

The new regulations:

1. Render transit of artifacts more complicated since different ivory products have differing legal requirements because laws differ across state, national and international boundaries. (For example, CITES and ESA protections differ for African and Asian elephants.)

2. Now impact legal antique and ancient worked ivory artifacts, which previously held exception status. Consequently, stricter transit requirements have created the need for species identification and for age documentation, including for ancient worked ivories of known provenance.

3. Complicate considerations for composite artifacts, some containing small pieces of ivory that is difficult to accurately identify or date. In 2015, USFWS proposed a rule change to Rule 4d of the Endangered Species Act to increase protections of African elephants. A so-called de minimis exception has been proposed to allow for the commerce of objects with small amounts of worked African elephant ivory components provided these criteria are all met: the object was imported before 1990 (the date the African elephant was listed on CITES Appendix I), ivory is not the primary material or in raw form, and ivory components total less than 200g (Fish and Wildlife 2015, 45162).

4. Complicate considerations for legal ivory artifacts that may have undocumentable ivory repairs.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Provides Guidance for Ivory Stewardship

The USFWS agency has compiled a useful table and informative list of questions and answers to guide owners and stewards of African elephant ivory artifacts, (see link below in Online Resources). The table, What Can I Do with My African Elephant Ivory includes the categories “Import”, “Export”, “Sales across State Lines (Interstate Commerce)”, “Sales within a State (Intrastate Commerce)”, “Non-Commercial Movement within U.S.” and “Personal Possession.”

Pertinent information for museums and collectors include the following questions:

1. How does prohibiting commercial use of antiques and other old ivory help elephant populations in Africa?

Illegal ivory trade is driving a dramatic increase in African elephant poaching, threatening the very existence of this species. It is extremely difficult to differentiate legally acquired ivory, such as ivory imported in the 1970s, from ivory derived from elephant poaching. Our criminal investigations and anti-smuggling efforts have shown clearly that legal ivory trade can serve as a cover for illegal trade. By significantly restricting ivory trade in the United States, it will be more difficult to launder illegal ivory into the market and thus reduce the threat of poaching to imperiled elephant populations.

2. How can worked African elephant ivory be imported as part of a traveling exhibition?

Worked African elephant ivory may be imported as part of a traveling exhibition, such as a museum or art show, provided that the ivory was legally acquired prior to February 26, 1976; the worked elephant ivory has not been transferred from one person to another in the pursuit of financial gain or profit after February 25, 2014; the person or group qualifies for a CITES traveling exhibition certificate; and the item containing elephant ivory is accompanied by a valid CITES traveling exhibition certificate or an equivalent CITES document that meets the requirements of CITES Resolution Conf. 16.8. Raw African elephant ivory cannot be imported as part of a traveling exhibition.

Existing National Acts

Since the 1970s, the national trade of elephant ivory has been highly regulated by a number of acts and laws; these apply to the importation and travel of artifacts across within and across state borders. Sometimes the laws overlap, in which case the stricter law applies.

  • The Lacey Act (1900 and Later Amendments): Prohibits trade of wildlife taken in violation of any state or foreign wildlife law or regulation; affects interstate commerce.
  • The Endangered Species Act (1973): Designed to prevent the extinction of native and foreign species of wild fauna and flora; lists Asian elephants as “endangered” (in danger of extinction), and African elephants as “threatened” (in danger of becoming endangered). This act prohibits elephant parts and products from being imported into the U.S. except under certain conditions. Artifacts carved of elephant ivory may travel legally if accompanied by documentation proving that their provenance pre-dates this act.
  • The African Elephant Conservation Act (1988): Prohibits the import of raw or worked ivory into the U.S. with certain exceptions. This act also established a grant program to fund elephant conservation efforts.

Online Resources

AIC. 2015. The preservation of cultural property with respect to U.S. government regulation of African elephant ivory. Position paper prepared for AIC by N. Owczarek, S. Hornbeck, J. D. Portell, and T. Drayman-Weisser. AIC position paper: African elephant ivory

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), http://www.cites.org

Nellemann, C., R. K. Formo, J. Blanc, D. Skinner, T. Milliken, T. De Meulenaer, and R. Pravettoni. 2013. Elephants in the dust: The African elephant crisis: A rapid response assessment. Nairobi, Kenya: UNEP, CITES, IUCN, TRAFFIC.

For State Bills and Laws, see: Wildlife Conservation Society, 96Elephants, https://www.96elephants.org/chapter-2.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Ivory Ban Q and A, 2014, http://www.fws.gov/international/travel-and-trade/ivory-ban-questions-and-answers.html

--- 2015. Proposed rules: Endangered and threatened wildlife and plants; revision of the section 4(d) rule for the African elephant (Loxodonta africana). Federal Register 45(80), July 29: 45154-45180.

The content for this page was added on July 10, 2015 and updated on April 5, 2016.