Elephant Ivory Trade in the U.S.

Dead elephants on display: carved ivory objects seized from Victor Gordon’s Philadelphia shop. Photo by Bill Butcher/USFWSIn the article beginning on page 6, we discuss the unrelenting slaughter of African elephants for their ivory. In the United States, import of African elephant ivory has been prohibited—via the African Elephant Conservation Act— since 1989, the same year that countries around the world enacted similar import bans.

You can, however, import raw ivory into the United States from sport-hunted trophies. You can also import worked (carved) ivory acquired before Feb 4, 1977, but not for commercial purposes. If, on the other hand, the worked ivory was imported prior to the 1989 ban, you are free to buy and sell it here. Import and sale of antique ivory (over 100 years old) represents another exception to the ban. The rules for importation of Asian elephant ivory are different still. (Confused yet?)

Last September, Victor Gordon, the owner of an African art shop in Philadelphia, pleaded guilty to smuggling after federal agents seized over a ton of African elephant ivory from his shop and from customers across the country. Gordon purchased ivory from West and Central Africa, where poaching is rampant. After the ivory was worked and stained to appear antique, it was imported openly through John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Of course, it would be simpler to clamp down on the illicit ivory trade if all ivory sales were banned, here and abroad. Certainly, given the stakes, consumers should avoid the purchase of any ivory, no matter the age, pedigree, or condition. That fine old carving in a curio shop may well be contributing to the conversion of an entire species into something of an “antique.”