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Ivory Ban Bill Advances in Sacramento

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Elephants in Chobe National Park, Botswana | Photo: Paolo/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A bill that would ban sale of almost all products containing ivory and rhino horn in California has passed a major hurdle in the Assembly. AB 96, which would close a loophole in state law that currently allows sale of ivory and rhino horn imported before 1977, passed the Assembly's Committee on Water, Parks, and Wildlife by a 10-2 vote Tuesday.

AB 96, which was introduced by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins of San Diego in January, would make it much easier to enforce existing laws banning the sale of ivory imported into the state after the 1970s. Ivory dealers often distress their products to make them appear older, and than makes it difficult for California Department of Fish and Wildlife law enforcement officers to assess whether a particular stock of ivory is legal for sale.

In 2014, the Natural Resources Defense Council surveyed ivory offered for sale by more than 100 California vendors, and found that between 77 and 90 percent of the ivory they saw was likely illegal under existing state law.

Federal law covering the sale, possession, or importation of elephant ivory is bewilderingly complex, with different categories of ivory depending on the object's age. As a result of the complexity of both state and federal law, reported the NRDC, vendors they contacted were often confused about which ivory objects were legal to sell in the state.

A complete ban on ivory trinkets would certainly simplify that confusion. AB 96 would exempt ivory detailing in musical instruments, such as piano keys or guitar fretwork, as long as the owner can verify the instrument was built before 1976. A few scientific pursuits involving ivory would also be exempted.

The bill would also give explicit responsibility for enforcing the ban on ivory to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Existing law isn't clear on that responsibility, which has led to spotty enforcement due to confusion over which police agency is responsible for cracking down on violators.

The thriving trade in ivory is responsible for the deaths of an estimated 30,000 or more elephants a year, and ivory poaching is thought to be the main reason the population of African forest elephants has dropped by more than 60 percent since 2002.

And that trade is nothing if not lucrative. "Illicit wildlife trafficking is estimated to be a $20 billion industry, right behind narcotics and weapons smuggling, with ivory trafficking alone accounting for $10 billion of that illegal trade," said Jennifer Molidor of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Those illicit industries are increasingly linked, as paramilitary groups and terrorist organizations operating in elephant habitat have increasingly turned to ivory poaching as a fundraising tool. That includes groups as well known as Joseph Kony's illegal army in Uganda and the Janjaweed militia in Sudan.

"In addition to the concern for rapidly dwindling populations of the earth's largest land mammal, this nexus of lucrative ivory trafficking, terrorism, and other human rights violations provides yet another compelling reason to eliminate the market for ivory," said Molidor.

California is a major hub for American ivory sales, with Los Angeles and San Francisco second and third only to New York City in terms of items sold annually. A total ban on ivory sales with clear enforcement responsibility could drastically reduce the amount of ivory sold in the U.S.

"The only way to ensure that poachers stop hacking the faces off of elephants and rhinos for their ivory and horns is to ban the sale and trade in the parts of these animals," added ALDF legislative counsel Carney Anne Nasser. "No trinket is worth the life of a critically threatened species."

The bill now goes to the Assembly's Appropriations Committee.

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