SUSTAINABILITY AND THE ENVIRONMENT
SAVING ELEPHANTS FROM THE SALEROOM
Caroline Cox is working to close legislative gaps that have allowed the illegal ivory trade to generate US $ 20 billion a year .
I t sounds like something from a Hollywood blockbuster : an ineffectual tranche of laws , shady ivory dealers , unscrupulous online traders , artificial intelligence and an academic on a mission … with parts also played by the Metropolitan Police and the Royal Family . Yet Caroline Cox , Senior Law Lecturer and the Lead Researcher in the University of Portsmouth ’ s Ivory Project , has proven that reality can be as gripping a story as any pot-boiler fiction .
At the beginning of the project , “ which was intended to be something quite small ”, says Ms Cox , “ we were just looking at a very specific part of the ivory trade in the UK , [ wanting ] to know what antiques dealers understood about the law … but secretly , I hoped , we ’ d be able to change the law .”
On the face of it , ivory dealers used to enjoy a reasonably straightforward set of self-certification standards in the trading and selling of ivory .
Number one : make sure it ’ s the real deal Take a needle , perhaps just a regular sewing needle or a run-of-the-mill clothes pin , heat it up until the tip glows molten orange and scorching hot to the touch . If you hold that heated needle to the surface of your item and it does not press in , it is real ivory . If it smokes , you ’ re holding bone , or worse , if the needle slides in , you have a lump of plastic on your hands . This is the sort of pantomime or parlour trick used by hucksters selling contraband in a dark alley – a little theatre masquerading as a practical way to prove authenticity .
Number two : make sure it ’ s old The existing law − based on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna , better known as CITES – placed sales controls on how parts of endangered species or live specimens ( think elephant or walrus tusks , rhinoceros ’ horn , tortoise shells ) are bought and sold . Items ‘ worked ’ ( significantly altered from their natural raw state to create instruments , jewellery , artwork and so on ) prior to March 1947 are legal to trade . Post-1947 ivory or ivory that is unaltered or ‘ unworked ’ is banned from being sold .
It had been hoped that dealers being unable to sell ‘ new ’ ivory would eventually put an end to poaching and killing protected species . Yet the World Wildlife Foundation estimates that still , on average , 55 elephants are killed every day for their tusks .
The problem , says Ms Cox , is that some dealers are not too concerned about the origin of their ivory and will maintain that the continual killing of elephants and the resultant illegal ivory streaming into the market has nothing to do with them or their trade .
“ They will swear ‘ I ’ m only interested in antique ivory ; I don ’ t deal in new ivory ’. But when you get down to the nitty-gritty of how to be sure that the item being sold is pre-1947 , you start to see the gaps . There is no certainty .”
Action on loopholes Numerous interactions like these encouraged Ms Cox to closely examine the legislation , which was a loophole-riddled set of arbitrary dates , selfregulation , hazy definitions and expensive , poorly applied enforcement , all ripe for exploitation .
What followed was extensive consultation with key ivory stakeholders – antiques dealers , auction houses , museums and industry bodies such as the British Antique Dealers ’ Association ( BADA ) – that , alongside coinciding remarks from Prince William at the 2018 London Wildlife Conference on the urgency of action , ultimately led to Ms Cox and her team providing expert written recommendations to the UK Government consultation that led to the Ivory Act 2018 .
The new Act starts on the basis that , unless an item falls within a very specific set of five derogations , you can ’ t sell ivory .
“ We recommended that there should be a passport-type system , and that only really special pieces of ivory should be given a passport . Everything goes through the same process – ivory
under the Ivory Act 2018 , that permit the sale of ivory :
• Pre-1947 items containing less than 10 % ivory by volume
• Pre-1975 musical instruments containing less than 20 % ivory by volume
• Pre-1918 portrait miniatures with a surface area of no more than 320cm ²
• Sales and hire agreements between reputable museums
• Pre-1918 ‘ rare and important ’ items of outstanding artistic , cultural or historic value .
ISSUE 03 / 2021