The Fish and Wildlife Service today announced it will impose a near-total ban on the sale of ivory, fulfilling a key element of the Obama administration's crackdown on wildlife trafficking.
The agency will release a final rule this week that prohibits the sale of most ivory across state lines. The new restrictions will go into effect July 6.
Exceptions will be made for items that are more than 100 years old, as well as those that contain less than 200 grams of ivory. That will effectively allow the continued trade of antiques, musical instruments and guns inlaid with ivory.
FWS Director Dan Ashe declared it a "great day for one of the world's most cherished species of wildlife."
"It will remove that smokescreen, that large fog of legal trade that has been concealing the illegal trade of ivory that continues to this day," Ashe said in a call with reporters. "The people of the United States will be speaking loudly to say: We value living elephants in the wild more than we value the creation and trade of trinkets made from ivory."
About 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory in a recent three-year period, according to FWS. The illegal trade is tied to terrorists and rakes in billions of dollars per year, powered by worldwide demand for ivory as a luxury item. An estimated 460,000 African elephants remain in the wild.
Today's move comes days before Secretary of State John Kerry leads a delegation to China, where ivory commands high prices. Now that the United States has taken the step to curtail ivory sales, Ashe said, officials will be able to "challenge" China to honor its commitment to do the same.
The rule has taken years to come to fruition, with initial concerns over how it would affect the antiques and music industries. The House also recently passed a controversial sportsmen's package that includes a provision to stop FWS from implementing a ban (Greenwire, Feb. 26).
Ashe said FWS listened to those "legitimate concerns" and thus carved out narrow exceptions to allow trade in items that do not provide cover for traffickers.
The final rule not only limits such items by the amount of ivory -- set at a maximum of 200 grams -- but also requires the contained ivory to make up less than 50 percent of the value and volume of the item.
In all, FWS received about 1.3 million comments on the proposed ban, a record beaten only by the agency's overturned rule to delist some populations of gray wolves. More than 98 percent supported banning ivory sales, Ashe said.
Wildlife advocates say the near-total ban sends a message to the rest of the world. The United States is "setting the bar in the global effort to stop wildlife crime, said Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund.
"Strong ivory laws here in the U.S. help protect elephants globally," she said. "By implementing a near complete ban on commercial ivory trade, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just made it much harder for criminals to use the U.S. to launder illegal ivory."
The International Fund for Animal Welfare similarly described the final rule as a victory, curtailing a large U.S. market for ivory that has acted as a "multimillion-dollar black box" for ivory traffickers.
But in a blog post, IFAW campaigns officer Peter LaFontaine wrote that the group would continue to speak out against what he called a "loophole" that allows trophy hunters to import two elephant trophies per year.
"However, even this represents an improvement, as there had been no numeric limit on trophy imports at all prior to the change," LaFontaine wrote.
Ashe said the trophy limit was somewhat subjective, with agency officials aiming to keep it low enough that it couldn't conceal illegal activity. But regulated hunting is not the cause of the poaching and trafficking problem, he said, "so there would be no justification of going with the number of zero."
Asked about the symbolism of the move, Ashe emphasized that elephants -- like grizzlies in the United States -- can be difficult to live with.
"If that elephant can have value for trophy hunting, then local people will tolerate them because they can see the value in sustaining an elephant population," he said. "But it has to be in a well-regulated environment."
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