This week the Obama administration announced a near-total ban on the interstate trade in ivory. The approval of the so-called “4(d) Rule” of the Endangered Species Act for African Elephants will close most ivory trade within the U.S. to protect elephants.
The result of years of advocacy efforts directed at U.S. leadership, the rule comes as Africa’s elephants find themselves under increasingly dire threat. Roughly 35,000 elephants have been lost across the continent for their ivory every year – an average of 96 elephants each day. Between 2002 and 2013, central Africa’s forest elephant population declined by two-thirds. Too often these elephant deaths are magnified by the tragic murder of wildlife rangers dedicated to protecting them.
Today’s poaching crisis differs from that of previous eras, in which individuals were driven to kill elephants and sell their tusks largely for the purpose of feeding their families. In recent years, sophisticated criminal enterprises have entered the game in response to the unprecedented demand of an expanding Chinese middle class, for whom traditionally carved ivory remains a high-status item.
Armed rebel groups like the Janjaweed and the Lord’s Resistance Army are reported to profit from the trafficking in ivory to raise revenue for military equipment and supplies. These activities have increased instability in areas like the Congo Basin that have been struggling for decades to emerge from poverty, armed conflict and political violence.
Unfortunately, legally acquired antique ivory is nearly indistinguishable from the ivory of recently poached elephants. This has enabled a vast amount of illegal ivory to enter the market globally, including in the United States, which has become one of the largest ivory markets outside of China.