Major Move Forward for Ban on Ivory, Rhino Horn

They look better on the elephants, don't they? | Photo: Skip Russell/Flickr/Creative Commons License

[Update Thursday, June 2, 2015: the bill has passed the California Assembly in a 53-12 vote. It now moves to the State Senate.]

A bill that would close a large loophole in California's existing ban on sales of ivory and rhinoceros horn passed an important hurdle in the State Legislature Friday, passing out of the Assembly's Appropriations Committee on a 12-4 vote.

The bill, AB 96, was introduced by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins In January. If passed, it would extend the state's existing ivory ban to include pieces imported into the state before June 1, 1977, which are exempt from the ban under current law. The existing ban has been called "unenforceable" due to ivory sellers' ability to artificially distress ivory pieces to look older. Such techniques can be detected in the lab, but that would eat up more staff time than wildlife law enforcement agencies can currently spend.

As reported in this episode of KCETLink's EarthFocus, an African elephant is killed about every twenty minutes by poachers, for whom the thousands of dollars per pound of raw ivory is a compelling incentive. Wildlife experts fear that African elephants may essentially be extinct within a decade if the trade isn't stemmed.



Though China leads the nations of the world in its demand for ivory products, the United States comes in second, and both San Francisco and Los Angeles are in the top three U.S. locations in illegal ivory trade. (New York City is first.) Much of the illegal ivory entering the United States comes from China, which has become a world center for carving and manufacturing ivory products.

Though international trade in African elephants' ivory was banned worldwide under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 1990, the group's Secretariat downlisted some populations of African elephant in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, and has allowed sales of "stockpiled" ivory from those countries to China and Japan.

Poached ivory enters China and Japan mixed in among that "legal" stockpiled ivory. Though the high price of elephant ivory has impelled some rural residents in Africa to take up freelance poaching, the global trade in ivory is dominated by ultraviolent paramilitary groups such as Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army and the Janjaweed militia out of the Darfur area. The proceeds from lucrative illegal sales of ivory go to support those organizations' campaigns, which are replete with human rights violations and atrocities.

The ivory is then processed in off-shore factories, and most of the resulting pieces are marketed to China's burgeoning middle class. But a lot shows up in California retail shops, and under current law it's just too hard for law enforcement officials to tell which ivory is pre-1977 and which is not.

Though AB 96 is targeted at elephant ivory, it would also ban ivory from hippopotami, mammoths, walruses, narwhals, and other whales as well as rhinoceros horn. It would continue the existing exemption on ivory included as a minor design detail in musical instruments that the seller could verify were built before 1976.

The vote on AB 96 in the Assembly Appropriations Committee followed a strict party line division, with the four "nay" votes and the sole abstention/absence coming from Republican members.

The bill now goes to the Assembly floor.