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A golden opportunity to protect antique ivory

20 September 2016

From 24 September–5 October, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) will be discussed at a Conference of the Parties (CoP17) in Johannesburg.

High on the extensive agenda is the issue of how to protect and maintain herds of African elephants across that vast continent. Among the official papers issued on the CITES website, in connection with the conference, is one entitled ‘Closure of Domestic Markets for Elephant Ivory’. This document has been submitted by Angola, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Niger and Senegal: countries that are deeply affected by threats to their elephant populations.

This particular submission, along with other CITES-issued advisories, focuses squarely on raw tusks and worked ivory. As the present writer has repeated ad nauseam, the protection of endangered species (of all kinds) is an utterly different one from the conservation of works of bona fide, CITES-certificated ‘antique’ works of art that happen to be made of, or include ivory.

The submission from this group of African nations welcomes ‘the adoption by the European Union on 26 February 2016 of the EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking, which aims, inter alia, to limit trade in ivory in the EU to “only legal ancient ivory items” and “suspend the export of raw pre-Convention ivory.”’ It goes on to recommend that ‘all Parties and non-Parties, particularly those in whose jurisdiction there is a legal domestic market for ivory, or any domestic commerce in ivory, adopt all necessary legislative, regulatory and enforcement measures as a matter of urgency to close their domestic markets for commercial trade in raw or worked ivory.’ The conservationist Lucy Vigne believes there should be a change of focus in Europe as, ‘[t]his recent issue in the West has been taking away valuable time and resources from dealing with the big issues we are facing urgently…referring to the trade in new ivory in Asia and poaching in Africa.’ (quoted in the Financial Times).

Despite the over-the-top demonisation of ivory behind the current legislation affecting the movement of ‘antique ivory’ in the United States [where the commercial import of African ivory is prohibited, regardless of its age], the government’s position there appears somewhat isolated. The United Kingdom government, where CITES rules are rigorously overseen by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has remained resolute in differentiating tusks and modern works of art from ‘antique’ ivory. The position in the UK generally adheres, quite workably, to a 1947 cut-off date. This, broadly, is the position of the European Union. In a post put out on the European Commission website on 8 July, Karmenu Vella stated: ‘The EU has already banned domestic ivory trade, going well beyond current CITES requirements. The only exemptions relate to ivory items acquired before 1990, that is before all African elephants got the maximum protection under CITES.’ And while there was concern recently about a ‘total’ ban in France, environment minister Ségolène Royal’s final measures appear to permit the sale of items worked as late as July 1, 1975 – if supported by CITES documentation’ (as reported by the Antiques Trade Gazette).

The UK will be part of the EU delegation to Johannesburg, and the Union’s 28 votes will carry considerable weight. The Conference, strongly backed by the UK, should take the opportunity formally to acknowledge that bona fide, CITES-documented ‘antique ivory’ is, very simply, not a matter for concern.