During a visit to Kenya on Saturday, President Obama announced sweeping bans to the United States’ ivory trade in the hopes of protecting the increasingly endangered African elephant.
Created in response to what the Fish and Wildlife Service called “the alarming rise in poaching of the [African elephant] to fuel the growing illegal trade in ivory,” the new proposed measures ban the sale of ivory across state lines — with specific, limited exceptions for certain pre-existing items like musical instruments or furniture — and further restrict commercial exports. Prior to Saturday’s announcement, ivory regulations in the United States have mostly targeted commercial import and export of the material. Legal ivory — found in various antique items or imported to the United States before 1990 and obtained before 1978 — has been allowed to be sold across state lines.
“By tightening domestic controls on trade in elephant ivory and allowing only very narrow exceptions, we will close existing avenues that are exploited by traffickers and address ivory trade that poses a threat to elephants in the wild,” FWS Director Dan Ashe said in a press statement. “Federal law enforcement agents will have clearer lines by which to demarcate legal from illegal trade.”
Poaching for ivory is one of the main threats that African elephants face. According to a 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100,000 elephants were killed by poachers between 2010 and 2012. In 2011 — the peak year for elephant deaths, according to the study — one out of every 12 African elephants was killed by a poacher, amounting to nearly three deaths every hour. No one knows how many African elephants remain on the continent — the most recent comprehensive estimate places the number at somewhere between 472,000 and 690,000 — but Center for American Progress Visiting Senior Fellow and vice chair of the President’s Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking David J. Hayes told ThinkProgress in March that “at a rate of death of about 35,000 per year, we’re looking at potential extinction.”
Following Saturday’s announcement, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell praised the restrictions as an important step toward shrinking the market for ivory and preserving the world’s remaining African elephants.
“If our children – and their grandchildren – are to grow up in a world where they appreciate their natural heritage and can see elephants in the wild and not just in the history books, then we owe it to them to shut down avenues that motivate poachers to go after these iconic animals,” Jewell said in a press statement. “As we work to put the brakes on poaching and prevent elephants from going extinct in the wild, we need to take the lead in a global effort to shut down domestic markets for illegal ivory. Today, we are making it harder for criminals by further shutting the door to the American market.”
The administration’s proposed ban will be put into place after a 60-day public commenting period. New York, New Jersey, and California all have passed laws banning the sale of ivory, with fifteen other states expected to introduce similar legislation in the coming years, according to the Seattle Times.
The United States represents the second-largest market for ivory in the world, behind Asia. In 2012, the most recent year for which the FWS has complete data, some 1,000 items containing elephant ivory were seized at U.S. ports. Other retailers attempt to use legal ivory trade as a means for concealing illegal activity — in 2012, a Philadelphia art dealer was arrested after authorities discovered that the ivory he claimed was antique was instead new ivory dyed to appear old. Worldwide, the ivory market has expanded rapidly in the past decade, tripling in size since 1998.
“The United States is among the world’s largest consumers of wildlife, both legal and illegal,” Ashe said. “We want to ensure our nation is not contributing to the scourge of poaching that is decimating elephant populations across Africa.”
But poaching isn’t the only threat that African elephants are having to contend with — globally, both African and Asian elephants are threatened by a loss of habitat. Human developments can cut off an elephant’s migratory route or fragment its habitat, forcing the animals to travel longer distances for food and water and bringing them into closer contact with humans. Local populations often view encroaching elephants as threats to their villages or crops, and are likely to kill the animals.
In the long-term, elephant populations also will have to contend with climate change. A 2013 study found that Asian elephant populations in Myanmar are incredibly sensitive to temperature shifts — any deviation from their ideal temperature of around 75 degrees Fahrenheit increased mortality rates in the studied populations, mostly through heat stroke or increased susceptibility to infectious disease. An assessment released by the World Wildlife Fund concluded that African elephants are also highly susceptible to climate change, as temperature changes make them vulnerable to disease and heat stress. Due to the low amount of genetic variability and their relatively long gestation periods, scientists worry that dwindling elephant populations — pushed to the brink by poaching and habitat loss — won’t be able to adapt quickly enough to survive in a changing climate.