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Ivory: the Elephant in the Room
President Obama bans ivory sales in an effort to save elephants from the highest poaching rates in decades.

An undercover agent walked into a jewelry store office in Midtown Manhattan two years ago and discovered a ton of illegal ivory—an actual ton. The ivory was all that was left of more than 100 elephants slaughtered for their tusks. Considering that only three state wildlife investigators cover all of New York City, the sting was a lucky break—but perhaps not a surprising one.

New York, and the country as a whole, has an illegal ivory problem, one that President Obama wants to end with a complete ban on the commercial sale of ivory. The ban is part of an executive order against the illegal wildlife trade that the White House announced Tuesday. Owning ivory will still be OK—assuming it was purchased legally in the first place—but selling the white stuff will be a big no-no, unless it’s a “bona fide antique” of over 100 years old (a fact sellers will have to prove).

Ivory imports have been banned worldwide since 1989, with an exception for pieces created before that year. The problem is, without expensive testing, it’s hard to tell how old ivory really is. This loophole provides a perfect cover for a black market of newly poached elephant parts.

“That trade is decimating iconic animal populations,” Obama writes in a letter introducing the new National Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking. “Because of the actions of poachers, species like elephants and rhinoceroses face the risk of significant decline or even extinction. But it does not have to be that way.”

Poachers killed 35,000 elephants in 2012 alone, representing the highest rate of poaching since the 1989 ban. The carnage is a response to the continuing demand for bangles, statuettes, trinkets, and anything else made from tusks. Much of this ivory typically passes through Asia before being smuggled into the United States.

“Most people don’t realize that the U.S. is the second biggest ivory market in the world, with epicenters in New York, California, and Hawaii,” says Elly Pepper, a policy advocate for NRDC (which publishes OnEarth). “By creating this national strategy, the U.S. is recognizing that we are part of the problem and that we’re going to step up our efforts to end this crisis.”

Obama’s actions follow a European Union resolution passed in January that calls for member states to place moratoria on all commercial imports, exports, and domestic sales and purchases of ivory. Just last week, France became the latest of several nations, including the U.S., to destroy its stockpile when it crushed 3 tons of confiscated ivory at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. The country has also stiffened penalties and lengthened prison sentences for wildlife traffickers.

For U.S. enforcement officials, discerning the age of ivory being sold on store shelves and online, and thus its legality, isn't easy or cheap. “If everyone was honest, we wouldn’t have an issue,” said William Woody, assistant director of law enforcement for the Fish and Wildlife Service, when he testified before the New York State Assembly last month. “If I was a shopkeeper, I’d lie.”

According to Woody and several New York enforcement officers testifying that day, documents are often falsified, and current legal penalties don’t dissuade criminals from selling ivory, which can bring in about $1,500 a pound. New York legislators had been considering their own moratorium, though that appears unnecessary, since Obama’s announcement that the U.S. market for ivory is now closed.

Such bans have worked before. When poaching rates skyrocketed in the 1980s, the United States and several other countries prohibited ivory imports in order to curb demand for the luxury item. It worked.

But in the last decade, the world is again experiencing the dark side of “white gold,” with reports from abroad of elephant poisonings, murdered park rangers, and links to terrorist groups like Al Shabaab. With an estimated 96 elephants dying for their tusks every day, taking all ivory off the market may be their last shot.

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Melissa Mahony is OnEarth.org's senior editor. She previously worked at Wildlife Conservation magazine, blogged about energy for SmartPlanet, and has written for many publications about science and the environment. MORE STORIES ➔