Washington considers ban on elephant ivory sales

Carved Tusk in Kowloon storefront. Photo by televiseus via Flickr.
Carved Tusk in a storefront in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong. (Photo by televiseus via Flickr.)

As a response to the illegal poaching of elephants — which has been linked to organized crime and terrorism — lawmakers in Olympia are considering banning most elephant ivory sales in Washington state.

Buying and importing new elephant ivory already has been banned by the federal government since 1988, but any ivory that was already in the United States before that date is legal to sell. The new bill, sponsored by Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, would change that in Washington.

“Enacting state-by-state ivory bans is the most effective way to close loopholes in the federal ban and save endangered elephants and rhinos,” Pettigrew said in a prepared statement. “This bill will not only save endangered animals, but will stop money from illegal ivory trade from going to fund a wide variety of illegal activities around the world.

Elephant ivory would be legal to own, but the bill would ban transfers, sales and barters of pieces containing elephant ivory or rhinoceros horn in Washington, except with the following four exceptions:

  • less than 5 percent by volume of a bona fide antique that is at least 100 years old;
  • for an educational or scientific purpose, or when the transfer is to a museum chartered by certain educational institutions;
  • to a legal beneficiary of a trust or to an heir or person receiving a distribution from an estate;
  • or part of a firearm, sword, knife, trinket, or musical instrument that was not acquired in violation of federal law.

The bill has changed from its original proposal. Instead of a felony as originally proposed, elephant ivory sales would be a gross misdemeanor under the bill as it’s now written. The bill now also excludes mammoth ivory from the ban — so sales of items containing the ivory of the extinct woolly mammoth would remain legal.

According to a report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), most illegal ivory poached in Africa ends up in China and Thailand.

However, supporters say that a ban on ivory sales in the United States is one key to cutting the profits in poaching.

“To stop the killing of elephants, we must stop the ivory trade. To stop the trade, as with all endangered species, we must stop the demand,” said Karen Goodrowe-Beck, curator at the Point Defiance Zoo.

Pete Lange, a Seattle artist and gallery owner, told the Senate committee that the ban would punish artisans who have been following the law and using the stock of legally obtained ivory already in this country.

For 50 years this has been my life’s work, and I’ve been able to make a living and provide an income for my employees and their families,” he said.

The bill was voted out of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources committee this week, and is scheduled for a hearing in General Government & Information Technology on Feb. 10.

In October 2014, hundreds came to the International District to march against the sale of elephant ivory and rhino horns.

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