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Andrew Wetzler’s Blog

What does the Republican Party have against elephants?

Andrew Wetzler

Posted July 8, 2014

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Every once and a while, House Republicans really make me scratch my head. I’m used to the endless anti-environmental “riders” attached to bills that fund the federal government, just one part of a systematic assault on environmental protection that has come to characterize the GOP of late. And I’m accustomed to many of those riders being directed at wildlife conservation. So the fact that Congressional Republicans want uses their budget-setting authority to block the Fish and Wildlife Service from protecting endangered species like the Valley Elderberry longhorn beetle or sage grouse came as no big surprise. Don’t get me wrong, these are terrible ideas, but not terribly surprising ones. But when Congressional Republicans come out against regulating the trade in elephant ivory? Well, that’s something new.

GOP elephant cartoonAs many people know, African elephant populations are in crisis. Over the last two years 50,000 African elephants have been killed by poachers. The problem has grown so alarming -- and the trade in ivory so profitable -- that many experts now view the illegal ivory trade as a national security problem, because its profits are often used to fund militant groups.

Ivory is difficult to accurately date.  So, while it’s technically illegal to sell ivory in the United States that is not antique or was imported after 1989, surveys have repeatedly found that illegal “blood ivory” continues to be sold in the U.S. by unethical merchants who simply lie about their items age or provenance. The legal market in ivory, therefore, facilitates poaching.

The solution, of course, is the end the commercial market in ivory goods entirely and this past February the Obama Administration announced it would be proposing new rules to do just that.  The exact scopes of those regulations aren’t fully known yet, but we expect the U.S. to propose largely ending the importation of ivory into the United States and further restricting exports. In fact, the Obama Administration has already issued orders clamping down on most commercial imports.

Not if Congressional Republicans have their way. Tucked into the House’s proposed appropriations bill for Department of Interior (see p. 59 for those of you following along at home) is a provision that would stop the Department from issuing or enforcing regulations that “prohibits or restricts the importation of ivory” into the U.S. or “the possession, sale, delivery, receipt, shipment, or transportation of ivory” that has been lawfully imported.

That’s a sweeping prohibition -- essentially, an endorsement of past practices. But past practices don't work. The bodies of 50,000 dead elephants are grim testimony to that fact. Maybe it’s the opposition from the National Rifle Association who (I kid you not) are worried about the ivory grips on their members' fancy pistols.  Whatever the reason, the Grand Old Party certainly isn’t the party of elephants anymore, no matter what its mascot is.

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Stanley SmithJul 8 2014 08:57 PM

Unless you can proclaim yourself an expert on ivory carvings, you really shouldn't declare that the age of ivory objects cannot be ascertained. The fact is, ivory works of art can be analyzed using all of the tools that an art historian uses when confronted with an unsigned and undated object or sculpture. The elephant image will remain the emblem of the Republican Party for many years to come; the question for you is, if you truly believe that historical objects made from ivory should not be a part of human culture, then will you request that all of the American museums take their ivories off view? After all, who knows how old those pieces are. Get your facts straight and stop perpetuating lies. Asia is the problem, so go after the criminals there. American collectors and dealers in LEGAL ivory have not contributed to this problem. US Fish and Wildlife Service has done an outstanding job in curtailing illegal imports and permitting legal imports of genuine antiques .

Andrew WetzlerJul 9 2014 10:02 AM

Thanks for commenting Stanley. Let me try to clarify my point. I didn't say that the age of ivory objects cannot be ascertained, I said it was difficult to ascertain them, as I think your post actually makes clear.

I also think it's indisputable that unscrupulous merchants in the United States import ivory objects that are not, if fact, old enough to be sold legally here; that these objects are often altered to be made to look older than they are, are mixed with items made from similar, but less-restricted, materials to disguise them, or are accompanied by fraudulent documentation.

Also, it must be pointed out that few enforcement agencies have the resources to employ an army of art history experts to assess the age of object they suspect to be fraudulent or have the capacity to reliably date them by isotopic analysis or other techniques. In fact, when New York State recently passed a law banning most ivory sales, lack of resources to conduct the kind of insensitive enforcement you seem to advocate was a key reason why.

As for museums, every proposal to restrict the ivory trade that I'm aware of (including the federal regulations discussed here) contain an exemption for museum displays. In the early 1970's the United States banned the commercial import of marine mammal parts, such a seal-skin jackets and polar bear rugs--and rightly so. But you can still see those object in museums around the country. Why should elephants be afforded any less care and protection?

Ann EarlyJul 11 2014 02:19 PM

Andrew, what can we do to help stop this provision from staying in or passing?

AudreJul 11 2014 05:47 PM

Great post. This REALLY should not be a partisan issue. This is about saving an iconic species from extinction... and the proposed rules are really not unreasonable. (In fact, I'd like to see them strengthened, personally, but one step at a time.) There are exceptions for musicians and museums as you note.

At this point in time, ivory is a bad investment. The risk is too high. It's time we invest in preserving the future of elephants... while we still can!

Andrew WetzlerJul 11 2014 06:01 PM

Hi Ann,

The best thing you can do is to call your House Representative and Senators and tell them that you oppose any language in the appropriations bill for the Department of Interior that would prohibit regulations restricting ivory sales.


Charlotte CartwrightJul 12 2014 11:59 AM

Animals feel pain as much as humans do, they need more protection from humans poaching them like garbage. Children play with miniature you exotic animals when they are younger and that's all that will be left of these beautiful creatures in a few years.

Sharon ToscanoJul 12 2014 02:09 PM

Please help the elephants. Support CITES and help strengthen it if you can, Do whatever you can to encourage China to stop import and sale, and work with ivory markets in the US where people may see the beauty of carved objects and not the pain and slaughter involved to acquire them. Thank you for your help.

Heidi BrandarizJul 12 2014 03:02 PM

Really? No, just no.

stacy jamesJul 13 2014 12:42 AM

Thank you Andrew,

There are no excuses at this point for the United States to do anything other than have a total ban on ivory.

Thank you for the information in your article. We'll be contacting our congressional leaders.

Mike ParedesJul 15 2014 01:27 PM

I am doing everything in my grass-roots capacity to thwart these ivory-lovers. It is unconscionable that a few wealthy families, who are just the minutiae of the population, think that their "investments" are more important than the elephant species and the communities that depend on them.

Cheryl PhillipsJul 15 2014 05:06 PM

Blood ivory funds terrorism. You can help win the war on terror by banning ivory.

Comments are closed for this post.


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