What would a Massachusetts ban on ivory mean for elephants and people?

After searching out a dozen antique stores in Boston, I finally found ivory on Newbury Street. The antique earrings were about the size of a pair of pencil erasers, white and with tiny black ships scrimshawed into them. I turned them over in my fingers and tried to determine how they were different from the bone, plastic, tagua nut and mammoth ivory I had seen before.

The store was small and sun-lit, and probably not the only store in Boston or Cambridge selling ivory. I asked the other shopkeepers in the neighborhood if they had any. “Not really,” said one. “It’s illegal,” said another. “But there is a guy up the street . . . Tell him I sent you.”

The global concern over elephant poaching has galvanized a trend to implement more regulations and bans against selling elephant ivory. New York, New Jersey and California have already banned most trade in elephant ivory. President Obama has proposed legislation to ban all interstate trade in the substance as well. Massachusetts is one of several states with pending bills to implement a statewide ban, and on October 21, 2015, the Massachusetts State House hosted a public hearing for comment on two bills restricting ivory trade. Given the complicated legal and ethical status of buying and selling ivory, it’s no wonder that it was so difficult to find any at an antique shop. But are these restrictions necessary?

The Massachusetts ivory bills are S.440, sponsored by Senator Jason Lewis (D-Winchester), and its companion, H.1275, sponsored by Representative Lori Ehrlich (D-Marblehead). The way the bills are currently written, “ivory” includes not just elephant ivory, but merchandise that is in whole or in part made of the teeth and tusks of whales, hippos, and mammoths. If the bills pass as written, selling these items in Massachusetts would become illegal, even if the item in question is legal under federal law. However, after considering testimony at the hearing and in the future, sponsors of the bill could revise them. Representative Ehrlich has already publicly stated that she plans to amend the bills to exclude whale ivory and exempt scientific institutions.

China is the world’s largest consumer of ivory, and the United States is the second. The Boston/Cambridge area is ranked as the seventh largest market in the U.S. for ivory products, meaning that legislation in the state of Massachusetts could have a considerable effect on the trade as a whole.

The apprehension about the ivory trade continues to grow as both poaching and trade increases every year. In 2011, poachers killed about one in 12 of the earth’s elephants, according to WildAid’s 2015 Tanzania Survey report. Furthermore, National Geographic’s September 2015 cover story explained how the illegal ivory trade funds terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army.

How can the legal sale in non-poached, antique elephant and mammoth ivory hurt living elephants? The concern is that it is difficult, but not impossible, to distinguish what is legal and antique, and what is not. (Paperwork is not required for antique ivory, and tests to determine age are a few hundred dollars each.) A more widespread ban would make it easier for law enforcement to confiscate and impose fines, without having to prove that the ivory is new.

A lot of people love elephants, but that doesn’t mean everyone is in favor of a complete ivory ban. Michael Viennau is the owner of The Scrimshander Gallery in Nantucket, in which he sells carved and engraved whale teeth and mammoth ivory pieces. Even though the bills aren’t likely to include whale ivory, they might still ban mammoth, which Viennau estimates make up about half his sales.

“I thought that would be the ethical material to use, so I moved into that totally,” said Viennau of mammoth ivory. “I didn’t think there would be any chance that they would ban that. There’s no reason to. It’s already extinct!” If mammoth ivory is included on the bill, Viennau said that he would join other vendors in an “inevitable” class-action lawsuit against the state for the value of their collections.

Not all antique dealers believe that ivory needs to be protected. Tom Lang, co-owner of Alexander Westerhoff Antiques in Essex, Massachusetts, was also at the ivory hearing, to testify in favor of the ban. “The illicit trade is actually riding on the back of the legal trade, meaning the antique ivory,” Lang said. “The newer ivory is being stained and carved in a period-looking style.” In 2014, U.S. Ivory dealer Victor Gordon was sentenced to 30 months and fined $150,000 for trafficking in poached ivory and painting it black or staining it to make it look antique.

Representative Lori Ehrlich and her Legislative Aide Joseph Gravellese acknowledge that, to address the concerns of people who own and trade in legal ivory, representatives could amend parts of the bills. “Lots of things have been brought to the table,” said Gravellese. “From blanket exemptions for items over 100 years old, to musical instruments.”

There are also disagreements about whether more bans on ivory would even protect elephants. John Frederick Walker is a journalist and author of Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants. He believes that there will always be a global demand for ivory, and there are ways to regulate the trade to protect elephants without making criminals of antique dealers. “I think that the current aim [of more complete ivory bans] is liable to be very counter-productive and a waste of resources,” said Walker. “Like the war on drugs.”

Standing at the panel in favor of the elephants were activists with Global March for Elephants and Rhinos, and an entire class of high-school students asking the panel to save the elephants. The legislators will consider the public comments and written testimony. They have not yet made a decision as to whether it will pass in its current form, or at all.

When I first asked for ivory in the Newbury St. antique shop, the shopkeeper said she didn’t have any. “You would have a hard time finding someone who would look you in the eye and say they have ivory,” she added. But after I told her I was writing about the proposed ivory ban, she showed me the earrings.

I asked if she thought I was from Fish and Game when I first asked about ivory. “No, I’m not worried about that, because we don’t keep any,” she said, even as I held the tiny pieces of elephant tusk in my hand. “I took it all off the shelves. I couldn’t look at any more pictures of dead elephants. So no more ivory.”

Kristin Hugo studies Science Journalism at Boston University and audits Harvard Law School classes.

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