Action to Tackle the Ivory Trade – United Kingdom

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Today, in the United Kingdom Houses of Parliament, Westminster Hall, 16:30 hours onwards (live on, there will be a debate of the UK Government and Parliament petition “Shut down the domestic ivory market in the UK.”

There is also a gathering outside Parliament today (15:00 – 18:00 hours) (supported by Two Million Tusks), “to show support for the ban and draw awareness and media to the debate.”

Two million tusks


To raise awareness in Parliament, an Early Day Motion (EDM) was raised, 13 January 2017, EDM 859, “Action to tackle the ivory trade – supported by 53 Members of Parliament so far:

That this House recognises that African elephants are facing an unprecedented crisis with an average of one killed every 15 minutes for their ivory; welcomes the action taken internationally by the Government to combat the ivory trade and protect elephants in their natural habitat; further recognises that both the illegal ivory trade and the existence of legal domestic markets are helping fuel this trade; notes that ivory, both legal and illegal, is being traded on a daily basis within the UK; further notes that illegal ivory items seized by police and the Border Force in the UK have been falsely antiqued, using artificial stains or ageing techniques, clearly destined for the legal antique market; notes that domestic ivory markets are known to provide cover for the illegal trade in ivory and also reinforce the high value of ivory across the world; notes that China has announced a domestic ivory trade ban by the end of 2017; and therefore calls on the Government to implement its commitment to press for a total ban on ivory sales and close down the UK ivory market, including that of antique ivory, with immediate effect.”

As the debate progresses and transcripts made available, there will be updates and feedback posted to this page…..

Further Reading:

The United Kingdom Ivory Trade,” IWB, 17 November 2016

Action for Elephants

Image courtesy of Action for Elephants UK – outside Parliament, 6 February 2017

Update – 6 February 2017 – Luke Hall MP moved the motion stemming from the petition “Shut down the domestic ivory market in the UK” – Please refer to video link for full, impartial coverage of the debate and/or Hansard’s transcript of the debate.

Lively debate today in United Kingdom Parliament…the initial points to take away (in my opinion):

  • Any tightening of the United Kingdom “Antique” (pre-1947) ivory trading does not mean affected ivory pieces will lose their beauty, or intrinsic historic/cultural importance – the pro-trade lobby (led by Victoria Borwick MP, Kensington) seemed to be confusing a priority for maintain a high monetary value for potentially affected ivory pieces over any other tangible value – and found it difficult to ‘value’ an elephant in comparison to the ‘value’ of artistic, historical heritage (ie. “Antique” ivory);
  • The word “destruction” of historic ivory was banded about by the pro-trade lobby with a ludicrous and ill-judged comparison with the destruction “by ISIL of Palmyra……” made by an ex-Christie’s auction house man, now South Antrim MP, Danny Kinahan – “if we ban ivory, then we are a little bit on the same page…” – no one has mentioned crushing/destroying any “Antique” ivory pieces as result of any United Kingdom ivory trading ban extension, just the cessation of trading – hysterical rhetoric does nothing to garner sympathy for ivory traders and “Antique” ivory owners – such pieces will always have ‘value’ (beauty, historical, cultural significance etc.) and that perspective should not be lost by resorting to exaggerated hyperbole;
  • A passionate speech from Rachel Maskell MP in support of a total ivory ban:

Let’s move on and bring in a total ban. These antiques are not beautiful works of art. It’s a shameful part of our history. We need to move in the way we look forward. Let’s remove them from display from our museums…..” – courtesy of Two Million Tusks

  • The United Kingdom antiques trade claims some £9 – 13bn turnover per annum – however “Antique” ivory trading is a mere fraction (perhaps 1%) of the whole antiques trade, with pieces such as musical instruments that contain small amounts of ivory an even smaller fraction again (with potential exemption of such to allow trade to continue under scrutiny);
  • Impassioned (and lengthy) speech of the day (imo) was by Owen Paterson MP, responding to Victoria Borwick MP – “you cannot compare the value of a bit of ancient jewellery (which will not be destroyed) with a living animal that will be destroyed…” – the elephants will run out if we do not act. Owen Paterson MP advocated looking at the USA/California framework for ivory trading and exceptional exemptions and the United Kingdom making up ground to set the moral tone with regard to ivory trading;
  • The causal link between the current, permitted legal “Antique” ivory and poached modern ivory was evidenced (in response to Rob Marris MP) that any ivory market perpetuates demand, regardless of any ivory dating threshold arbitrarily drawn in the sand, one side of which is somehow exempted by the pro-trade lobby as not having any influence on fermenting demand (despite the main market being Asian buyers, a 600 million plus population that is increasingly wealthy and seemingly still hypnotised by the lure of ivory as a status symbol, unless otherwise dissuaded) – plus the ivory market is open to cheating (laundering of illicit ivory) and corruption – eg. Christie’s Auction house (London) was fined in May 2016 for illicit ivory trading – so the current ‘certification’ system is not reliable, or is being wilfully manipulated even by the ‘above reproach’ antiques industry leaders;
  • Owen Paterson MP cited Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s BBC series “Afrcia’s Elephants: Hugh and the Ivory War”  (October 2016) examined nine ivory pieces purchased on-line in the United Kingdom (after employing scientific carbon-dating methods), four out of nine pieces were found to post-date 1947, with one ivory item dated as taken from an elephant that was growing its tusk in the 1980s. Two other pieces had been re-worked into ‘new’ pieces, so were also technically ‘illegal’ as the overall piece could not be considered as a ‘worked’ item pre-dating 1947. So overall, two-thirds (66.67%) of the ivory items studied by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall were not ‘legal’ “Antique” ivory that could be sold in the United Kingdom;
  • Rob Marris MP sought (numerous) times the costing for carbon-dating to support any proposed permitting system for “Antique” ivory (rather than relying on the ‘appraiser’s eye’ as advocated by Victoria Borwick MP – how can any appraiser distinguish with accuracy between a piece from 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949…?)  – Oxford University provides a service at approximately £500/sample, but again there are confidence intervals associated with the accuracy of any carbon-dating approach (due to potential ‘complications‘), but at least carbon-dating is scientifically more reliable then any appraiser’s eye and carbon-dating cannot be unduly pressured by the ‘value’ of any piece under examination – Victoria Borwick MP argued that some ivory pieces were too valuable/fragile to drill for a sample to carbon-date. So fine, then these pieces could not be included and traded in any ‘certification’ system based upon carbon-dating that might be proposed;
  • Victoria Borwick MP (and Rob Marris MP) also referred to TRAFFIC’s 2016 ‘very quick’ report on the UK ivory market and its conclusion that links between the UK ivory trade and the current elephant poaching crisis “appear tenuous at best”:

However, “TRAFFIC identified that the current UK ivory market buyers reported in 2016 by traders were predominantly “travellers and citizens from East Asian countries and territories, including mainland China, Japan and Hong Kong,” so the potential implications are anything but tenuous – How does TRAFFIC know that these same Asian buyers (Asia, particularly China is a key market for all ivory), by having their appetite for “Antique” ivory in the United Kingdom satisfied, are not encouraged to seek ivory of even more dubious origin elsewhere?” – IWB

  • None of this discussion of accurately dating ivory on traders’ stalls, on-line etc. provided a system that can easily be assessed by law enforcement officers? Even with any ‘newly’ proposed certification system, how will law enforcement be able to assess compliance and accurate paperwork if the tools required are based upon ‘expensive’ carbon-dating access to double-check?
  • John Mann MP et al. argued that for these reasons, there was no room to work at the margins, a total ban (including museum pieces being transferred/loaned) was the only way to guarantee no scope for illicit behaviour to flourish;
  • Procrastination – the government debated the issue on 8 December 2016, again now 6 February 2017….the promised consultation on the issue is still not in motion – so why the delay and seemingly the dragging of feet?
  • The need to extend the ivory ban has a moral imperative – no decision can be shelved due to potential negative economic impacts; it was argued that such economic arguments would not be applicable to perpetuating child labour for example;
  • The United Kingdom’s leadership on the issue (and the need for a concerted worldwide effort) has been severely diminished by a lack of action – Kenya set an example by burning its ivory stockpiles in April 2016, whilst the United Kingdom‘s “dithering” from an outright ivory trading ban “resonates around the world” (implied in a negative way!);
  • Thérèse Coffey MP – Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Environment and Rural Life Opportunities:
    • Consultation on extending the ivory trading ban still due to start “as soon as possible;
    • Government committed ‘to the most effective plan to tackle poaching…..’ – which says to me, that there is still room for evidence being sought linking any “Antique” ivory trade directly with present day elephant poaching;

Overall a good debate (imo), but seemed to overlook the massive on-line trading market (private individuals and unscrutinised ‘traders’) and lack of meaningful prosecutions for wrong-doing.

Any resulting government action is awaited – after all, some “85% of the public*” are in support of a total ivory trading ban, so ‘the will of people’ should have precedent perhaps (?).

* “Further research carried out by TNS in September 2016 found that 85% of the public think that buying and selling ivory in the UK should be banned” – Luke Hall MP.

Further reading

Elephant crisis: MPs accuse government and Europe of dragging their feet over ivory ban,” The Guardian, 8 February 2017

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