Just as gay marriage laws became a recent trend among state legislatures, anti-ivory trade laws are popping up all over the nation. But what exactly do these laws (or in some cases, bills) say? What exactly is legal or illegal when it comes to possessing and selling ivory in America? Well, I'm glad you asked, because that's what I'm going to talk about in this post!
It's important to note that ivory laws don't just protect elephants. They spread to a variety of species that have ivory teeth or tusks (see my Animal Ivory page). Ivory laws, generally speaking, prohibit the possession, sale or intent to sell elephant ivory, rhino horn and narwhal and walrus tusks.
The most recent state ban, enacted by Washington voters in November 2015, extends beyond ivory. It prohibits any trade that sells or distributes products of endangered animals, including cheetahs, pangolins, elephants, tigers, lions, leopards, rhinos and marine sharks, rays or turtles. On the national and global level, one wildlife trade is not segregated from the others, as this law recognizes.
So ultimately, by prohibiting ivory, you could be saving several species at once.
Fossil Ivory vs. Modern Ivory
While to some of us ivory is ivory, no matter the age, in the eyes of the law there is a such thing as legal and illegal ivory: namely, pre-1989 ivory and post-1989 ivory. To understand the reasons behind this, you need a quick briefing on the global ivory discussion:
In the 1970s and 80s, world leaders began to notice a rapid decline in the elephant populations of Africa because of the ivory market. So, governments decided to classify elephants as an Endangered Species, which meant that the trading or sale of any elephants or elephant parts would be strictly regulated among CITES member nations. These rules were officially adopted in 1989, which meant that any ivory obtained before 1989 was legally recognized as legal, while anything obtained after 1989 is considered illegal.
Now, this explains why mammoth ivory is considered legal ivory, because it dates well before 1989. This means that for CITES nations, mammoth ivory is classified differently, and therefore regulated differently. There are states, however, that are passing laws against the sale and/or trade of mammoth ivory as well, for fear that having a legal trade at all will spur the illegal one.
Opponents of Ivory Legislation
You've heard the phrase "tickling the ivories"? Well, there has been great concern among musicians and gun rights activists that by passing anti-ivory laws, guns and instruments that contain ivory will be outlawed. They do have a point, because federal (and some state) laws require proof that items containing ivory be dated (to prove their legality) and many times there's a limit to how much ivory the object can contain.
In the past, guns and instruments contained ivory, so this could be a concern for those markets. However, I personally haven't heard of a gun or instrument that had more than 20 percent of ivory in it, which is the largest legal amount I've seen.
The punishment for possessing or selling illegal ivory ranges from state to state. I've seen a $1,000 fine and/or jail time for the first offense, which is increased to a $5,000 fine and/or jail time for repeated offenses. There are also states that will charge a fine of twice the ivory's market value, which could be considerable depending on the size and weight of the piece.
In the federal government, ivory laws are regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which handles most animal-related laws. At the state level, the same department will handle the enforcement of this rule, although some states (California) have created state-mandated local programs to police it.
Kerry Skiff is a conservation advocate and recent journalism graduate of Northern Kentucky University. She follows the ivory trade around the world, and uses her voice to educate Americans about their role in animal conservation.