Selling Ivory in South Africa is a Thriving Business

Aug 21, 2019 | Commentary

By Adam Cruise – PhD candidate: Stellenbosch University, South Africa

While global efforts to ban international and domestic ivory markets have been ramped up, South Africa quietly continues to trade in a product that has seen a third of the continent’s elephant population wiped out in less than a decade.  

Even though the United States and China have closed their domestic ivory markets, and that Japan and the European Union, who continue to trade in ivory, are under enormous pressure from the global community to shut-down their markets, South Africa has largely escaped scrutiny, and openly trades in ivory.

The ‘Antique’ Ivory Trade

International restrictions concerning commercial sales in ivory are enforced through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The Convention currently restricts international commercial trade in all new ivory.

This, however, means that CITES does not restrict commercial trade in older ivory – ivory taken from Asian elephants before 1975 or from African elephants before 1976. The commercial trade in ‘pre-convention’ or ‘antique’ ivory is allowed under CITES and may include raw ivory (whole tusks) or worked ivory (carved items made of or containing ivory).

It is important to note that while CITES regulates international trade in ivory, it does not regulate domestic markets within countries or markets within regional trading groups, for example the European Union (EU). The Convention therefore permits countries to adopt their own measures to regulate domestic ivory markets.

In South Africa, trade in new ivory is also prohibited while the trade in ‘antique’ ivory is permitted. Retailers in South Africa who stock antique ivory items must be registered.

The South African ivory market, although relatively small compared to that of Japan or the European Union, is thriving with items freely available and prominently displayed in most antique stores. This is especially the case in the commercial hubs of the Western Cape and Gauteng provinces. There is also a significant number of ivory items available for sale online.

Most of the items on sale consist exclusively of carved figurines, heirlooms, relics, jewellery, curios and worked tusks of ivory.

Legal or Illegal?

All items are sold as ‘antique’, and therefore legal. However, in all the products examined (about eight-hundred pieces) there was no reference as to their age or origin. One dealer in Johannesburg remarked that “it is easy to see the difference between new and antique ivory because antique ivory looks old”. She referred to the brownish-colour of a dozen or so items in her store.

However, in most antique stores investigated, many ivory carvings looked a lot whiter and appeared not to be as old. None of the store owners or shop assistants could verify the age of any of the items. There was no paperwork, no certificate of authenticity, no permits and therefore no proof that the items were in fact ‘antique’.

There was also no knowledge of the origin of the ivory for sale. Retailers buy from wholesalers who ‘apparently’ purchase their ivory from private individuals, deceased estates or from antique trade fares. A couple of vendors admitted their ivory was bought from Zimbabwe where there is a legal ivory carving industry. Zimbabwe has special CITES permission to trade in carved items but it’s strictly for non-commercial purposes.

One trader from The Netherlands, speaking from his stand displaying ivory statuettes at a monthly antique fare in Johannesburg’s exclusive Nelson Mandela Square, said: “South African authorities are clueless about the regulations concerning ivory and won’t even know the difference between bone and ivory.” The vendor confessed that he had been taking uncertified ivory pieces to Amsterdam from South Africa for the past thirty years and never had any difficulty with customs in either country regarding the lack of documentation.

Most retailers did not seem particularly concerned whether a buyer was potentially taking their purchases overseas where stricter regulations should apply. On asking if it was legal to take ivory pieces to countries like the UK where ivory is banned, sellers were either non-comital or advised to keep the number of items purchased to a level that would not flag notice from the authorities.

Given that there is not proof of age or origin with any ivory item for sale in South Africa and given that most of the buyers seem to be overseas nationals, there may be cause for concern that South Africa’s antique ivory market is being used to launder ivory from recently killed elephants.

Increase in Elephant Poaching and Ivory Trafficking

In South Africa, poaching of elephants for their tusks has shown a marked increase. In 2014, the first two elephants were killed for their tusks after fourteen years of no poaching. Since then, there has been a worrying spike. In 2015, there were 10 times the number of poached elephants, a figure that doubled in 2016. Last year, a total 72 elephants had been killed for their tusks.

According to the latest report by the Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) the increase in poaching, if sustained, could make South Africa a more prominent exit point for illegal ivory moving to Asia. The warning seems to already have taken effect. A number of seizures of ivory recently at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg shows that South Africa is fast becoming a major transit hub for illegal exports of ivory. Furthermore, it appears that enforcement and controls in South Africa are not sufficient at present to stop the trafficking.

The latest Elephant Trade information System (ETIS) report has noted:

“…in Southern Africa, considerable quantities of ivory have entered international trade from South Africa, including one large-scale shipment of 2,478 kg to Vietnam in 2017, the fifth largest seizure in this time period.”

The report also states that clandestine ivory processing for export is occurring within South Africa. As a regional air transport hub, direct flight connections between Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport and various Asian destinations make smuggling ivory possible, while trafficking through indirect connections occur through the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Europe and Turkey for onward travel to Asia.

These reports show that significant quantities of ivory have entered international trade from South Africa and suggest considerable levels of criminal activity operating there. It seems that enforcement and controls in the country are totally insufficient in preventing the laundering of illegal ivory through a legal ‘antique’ market from within South Africa.

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