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Ten things you need to know about ivory trade and the UK


On Monday 6 February, MPs will debate the UK’s ivory market in Westminster Hall. Here are 10 things you need to know about the global ivory trade and the role of the UK.

  1. On average one African elephant is killed by poachers every 25 minutes

It is estimated that around 20,000 African elephants are killed by poachers for their ivory every year. This equates to an average of around 55 elephants being killed every day, that’s one every 25 minutes. The latest independent data and analysis suggests that poaching is slightly down from the peak recorded in 2011, but remains at unacceptably high and unsustainable levels.

  1. 20% of Africa’s elephant population lost in just ten years

The overall African elephant population plummeted by over 20 per cent in the past decade, falling to an estimated 415,000, mainly due to a dramatic surge in ivory poaching.  According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), around 111,000 elephants were lost between 2006 and 2015 with the largest declines in Central Africa, Tanzania and Mozambique, and with the majority being illegally killed for their tusks to meet rising demand for ivory in Asia.

African elephant herd in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.African elephant herd in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. © naturepl.com / Anup Shah / WWF
  1. International ivory trade is illegal

Due to rampant elephant poaching, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) agreed to a ban on international ivory trade, which started in 1990.  Since then, other than two one-off sales in 1999 and 2008, the ban in international commercial ivory trade has remained in place. Exemptions exist for limited items such as antiques, where the trade is not thought to contribute to the current poaching crisis.

  1. Demand for ivory is greatest in Asia

Ivory is mainly sought after for carvings, jewellery and ornaments.  Demand is highest in markets in Asia, especially China where ivory is seen as a status symbol.  Whilst Thailand has taken significant steps to transform its domestic ivory market in 2015, the legal trade there still allows illegal ivory to be laundered. Vietnam and Hong Kong have also been identified as having significant legal and illegal markets for ivory.

Elephant Ivory products for sale, Bangkok, Thailand. © WWF-Canon/ James Morgan.Elephant Ivory products for sale, Bangkok, Thailand. © WWF-Canon/ James Morgan.
  1. Limited ivory trade is legal in the UK

In general, ivory trade is illegal in the UK, but there are some exemptions when trading an ‘antique’ (i.e. worked before 3 March 1947) or with a government issued certificate for items worked between 1947 and 1990. A rapid survey by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, in 2016 found 3,200 ivory items for sale in shops in London and 2,008 ivory pieces for sale on six online marketplaces. The researchers found only one item for sale deemed to be after the 1947 cut-off date.

  1. Illegal ivory trade is happening in the UK

Seizure data shows that the UK plays a role in illegal ivory trade, at both import and re-export, but in particular as a transit country, with ivory seizures reported by the UK having increased in recent years. Of the 2,853 illegal wildlife products seized entering the UK between 2009 and 2014, at least 1,165 were ivory products.

Trademapper infographic showing UK Border Force seizures for ivory, rhino horn and tiger products and countries of origin, 2009 - 14Trademapper infographic showing UK Border Force seizures for ivory, rhino horn and tiger products and countries of origin, 2009 – 14
  1. Ivory is legally exported from the UK

According to figures from CITES, between 2005 and 2014, the UK was a significant re-exporter of ivory for commercial purposes, comprising over 54,000 ivory pieces. There has been a dramatic increase in the amount of ivory being re-exported from the UK to China since 2005.

  1. Ivory trade controls may be tightened in the UK

In September 2016, the UK government announced plans to ban the sale of ivory worked between 1947 and present day. This would only stop the trade in worked ivory between 1947 and 1990, which currently needs to be accompanied by a government-issued certificate.

  1. Even more control is needed of the UK’s ivory trade

WWF-UK is calling for a ban on the legal elephant ivory trade in the UK to stop any contribution to stimulating the global demand for ivory which drives the poaching of elephants. Such commitment from the UK would help set a precedent for other countries worldwide where demand for ivory strongly contributes to the ongoing elephant poaching crisis.

More broadly, WWF-UK also wants to see sentencing guidelines for wildlife trade offences as my colleague Niki Rust explains.

Elephant ivory bracelets seized by Border Force, Heathrow Airport © WWF-UK / James MorganElephant ivory bracelets seized by Border Force, Heathrow Airport © WWF-UK / James Morgan
  1. Other countries are closing their legal domestic ivory markets

In December 2016, China announced it would cease part of ivory processing and sales by 31 March 2017 and ban all ivory processing and sales by 31 December 2017. Only recognised cultural relics will be legal to auction under the new policy. China is currently the world’s largest market for legal and illegal ivory, and so this commitment for a domestic elephant ivory ban represents a major boost to international efforts to tackle the elephant poaching crisis and the legal ivory trade.

In July 2016, the US announced a ‘near-total’ ban on elephant ivory sales. The ban allows some exemptions, including worked items (antiques) over 100 years (a rolling date) and a de minimus exemption allowing the sale of pieces with a smaller proportion of ivory.

Hong Kong announced in December 2016 its timetable for enacting a ban on legal ivory sales. Legislation will be introduced in early 2017, with a phased plan to enact a total ban on all elephant ivory by 2021.  WWF want to see this ban enacted sooner.

You can take action to protect elephants by donating to support our work tackling illegal wildlife trade, or signing our petition to protect elephants in Selous, Tanzania.

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