UK’s ivory ban delay ‘costing lives of elephants’ as dealers still selling trinkets for thousands of pounds

Dec 27, 2020 | News

By Jane Dalton – The Independent

A delay in implementing a ban on selling ivory is costing elephants’ lives, experts say, with items made of tusks still being legally sold in the UK.

Auction houses and dealers are still profiting from the ivory trade despite parliament passing a ban two years ago.  

Government action to put the law into effect has stalled because of legal challenges, Brexit, the general election and the coronavirus pandemic.  

The ivory trade is a major cause of declining numbers of wild elephants, but analysis of ivory sales at some of Britain’s leading auction houses – seen by The Independent – reveals that between June and September this year, more than 6,600 items that included ivory went up for auction.

The much-heralded Ivory Act 2018 outlaws its sale, in an effort to halt poaching of the endangered mammals.  

Peter Matthews, a campaigner who has tracked sales figures published on a specialist auctions website, estimated that 229 auction houses made almost £850,550 in those four months.  

Other investigations by The Independent reveal that ivory is still being legally sold online by antiques traders, in some cases for thousands of pounds, and by private individuals on Facebook. 

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who in 2016 made a documentary on the trade, told The Independent that the delay in the law taking effect meant elephants were still being killed.

“As well as continuing to create confusion over what’s legal and what isn’t, this perpetuates the idea, both in the UK and globally, that ivory is ‘precious’, to be treasured and bid for,” he said.  

“And that helps motivate poachers to kill elephants. Dealing with this problem was a Conservative manifesto promise. And still we have no date for the ban to come into force. 

“It’s time to step up, enforce the ban, and close down this destructive trade.”

Last month, a Prussian cane with an ivory bust of Kaiser Wilhelm II went up for auction with an estimate of £18,000-£22,000, while a model elephant with teeth of ivory had an estimate of €50,000-60,000 (£45,000-£54,000).

In July, an African tribal art knife was auctioned for £6,400, despite having had an estimate of just £80.

More than seven in 10 ivory items that changed hands at over 1,000 sales staged by the auction houses in the summer were boxes, jewellery and figurines. Japanese carvings fetched the highest prices of items sold above their estimates, the analysis showed.

In October alone, 100 auction houses pocketed a total of about £34,000, Mr Matthews estimates, based on trades and commissions.  

The analysis shows that 41 per cent of auctions included ivory objects, and of those, 60 per cent would be illegal under the act. They included a 17th-century trinket figure that sold for £4,200 in October.

Last month, a Hampshire antiques shop was selling an 18th-century casket inlaid with ivory for £3,500, and a model of a horse and cart, all carved from ivory, for £2,950.

Items being offered for sale on Facebook Marketplace by private sellers last month included a £950 all-ivory carved statue in Birmingham, two £1,000 rosewood and carved-ivory in St Albans, Hertfordshire, and a £245 carved ivory-and-bone lamp.

African elephants are still being killed by poachers at an average rate of 55 a day, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. The tusks are turned into trinkets or jewellery, despite a worldwide ban on commercial ivory trading across international borders that took effect in 1990.

UK law still allows the sale of antique carved or worked ivory dating from before 1947, on the grounds that antique ivory does not contribute to poaching. However, experts have proven that the exemption has widely been used as a cover for trade in ivory from newly killed elephants, and the 2018 law closes that loophole.

Anti-poaching activists have shown that even experts cannot always distinguish between pre- and post-1947 ivory, and in any case, the law is impossible to police for every item sold.

A 2017 report by Two Million Tusks, a UK-based group that investigates the British ivory trade and which Mr Matthews has worked with, showed that nine in 10 lots at UK auction houses did not satisfy the legal requirement to demonstrate they were pre-1947.

The Ivory Act, which was passed to great fanfare from ministers who heralded it as “one of the toughest bans in the world”, makes it illegal to sell, buy or lend ivory except to an accredited museum. 

In a consultation, 88 per cent of respondents supported a ban.

The Act was challenged in court by the antiques trade, culminating in the Court of Appeal upholding the law in May, to conservationists’ relief.  

But antiques dealers still say a near-total ban is unfair. One trader who bought an ivory snuff box in the summer for several hundred pounds said that after the ban it would only be worth £10 for scrap silver. 

When it is enacted, the ban will still allow items consisting of less than 10 per cent ivory to be bought and sold.

Export figures reveal that last year the UK exported, under permit, 1,931 items for commercial use, 17 per cent of which went to China and 31 per cent to Russia.

Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall said: “When we investigated the ivory trade for the BBC in Saving Africa’s Elephants, we discovered that legal ‘antique’ ivory was being used as a cover for the trade in illegal poached ivory, and that the UK antiques market – both importing, but mainly exporting, thousands of pieces of ivory each year – was implicated in the problem.  

“The Ivory Bill is passed, but not implemented, which means the trade continues apace, as people are cashing in and moving out their ivory artefacts ahead of the ban coming into force.”

A spokesperson for Two Million Tusks said: “It is completely unethical that the auction houses continue to make money from ivory. It is apparent from the data they aren’t starting to implement any new policies or procedures in preparation for when the ban is finally implemented, nor scaling down on the number of ivory items they offer for sale.”

James Sawyer, UK regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said: “We strongly welcomed the passing of the ban. However, almost two years later, what was heralded as one of the toughest ivory bans in the world, showing global leadership on the issue, is sadly yet to come into force. Meanwhile, elephants continue to be slaughtered – for trinkets, carvings and other items nobody needs.

“Ivory should only be valued on a live elephant, and the huge momentum for the UK ban showed the overwhelming majority of the UK public agrees. However, while any legal ivory trade continues, elephant populations continue to be decimated for the illegal trade.”

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