June 18, 2014 11:10AM

When Washington Prefers to Punish Ivory Owners Rather Than Save Elephants

The Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking met last week as the administration prepares to turn millions of Americans into criminals and destroy billions of dollars in property. The policy is driven by ideology and actually would kill more elephants.

Most ivory in America is legal and its sale does not endanger wildlife today. Before the international ban of 1989, millions of objects made of ivory or accented by small amounts of ivory entered the United States.

To fight poaching the government could fight poaching. That is, target those illegally killing elephants and selling illicit ivory.

Instead, the government has decided to penalize those trading in legal older ivory. Alas, doing so won’t protect any elephants. 

In February, the Fish and Wildlife Service took what it described as “our first step to implement a nearly complete ban on commercial elephant ivory trade.”  The agency plans to prohibit the sale of even antique ivory if the owner cannot “demonstrate” the age with “documented evidence.”  Since 17th century carvers did not provide certificates of authenticity, virtually no ivory owner has such documentation, which Washington never before required.

The argument for the rule is that it would make life easier for FWS. But it wouldn’t help stop poaching. 

First, until politics changed the policy this year, FWS successfully targeted real criminals. For instance, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species reported a high level of effective enforcement in America.  In a 2008 study, elephant researcher Daniel Stiles and conservationist Esmond Martin concluded:  “The USA has a good record for [ivory] seizures.” 

Second, the fact the law may be difficult to enforce is no excuse for treating those who followed the law and played by the rules as criminals. Dealers and collectors learn the difference between newer and older ivories. 

Third, illicit ivory accounts for just a few percent of ivories sold in America. Multiplying the number of illegal objects subject to seizure would make it far harder to stop the limited trade in new ivories that endangers elephants

Merging the illegal and legal markets would encourage illicit sales. In a new study for the Ivory Education Institute, economist Brendan Moyle argued that legal ivories help restrain prices for illegal items. Moreover, desperate collectors would be tempted to turn to those on the other side of the law. FWS would have to shift resources away from poachers. 

Fourth, Americans are not driving the demand for poached ivory. In September 2012 FWS admitted:  “we do not believe that there is a significant illegal ivory trade into this country.” Stiles, an African elephant specialist, concluded in March:  “Most of the ivory sold in the U.S. is legal recycled ivory or genuine antiques.”  Moyle similarly noted:  “The size of the U.S. ivory market is a reflection of its historical size and not current poaching levels.” 

China is by far the largest market for illegal ivory. Some prohibitionists contend that punishing Americans would lead China to act against poaching. However, Beijing won’t harm its own people because the U.S. government treats U.S. antique collectors and dealers like criminals. 

The real agenda of some activists is not to save elephants. They believe anyone possessing ivory deserves to lose the item’s value. 

Yet an 18th century ivory cane is an object, neither moral nor immoral. There is nothing wrong with buying it, whatever its nature centuries ago. Moreover, some ivory was obtained from elephants which died naturally or were culled—killed because the habitat would not support them.

As I point out in Forbes online, “the administration’s assault on the rule of law should scare even those who do not own any ivory.”  FWS would essentially steal people’s property at the behest of activist ideologues by changing a few words in the Federal Register.  

Americans should work together to save elephants with policies that actually address the problem and which respect people’s basic constitutional rights and liberties. The proposed ivory ban fails on all these counts.