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Antique ivory poses no threat to elephant conservation: in fact, it needs protection itself

25 May 2016

There have been persistent attempts, in recent years, to link the universally applauded efforts to enforce elephant conservation, with calls to ban the movement of historic works of art made of or containing, ivory. These debates are frequently fractious, and often ill informed – and have elicited different responses in different countries. The British Government and its Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), are steadfastly maintaining a pragmatic position. The agency in the UK responsible for monitoring the import and export of works of art that include endangered species of all sorts – as defined by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, ratified in 1975 (CITES) – is the consistently helpful and supportive Animal and Plant Health Agency’s Centre for International Trade, based in Bristol.

In the United States, where a de facto ban on the import of pre-CITES ivory has been in place since February 2014, the agency with responsibility for implementing President Obama’s ‘Director’s Order 210’ is acting zealously to stamp out the commercial movement of historic works of art.

So widely publicised has the Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) position been, that it should beggar belief that anyone would not be fully aware of the consequences of bringing ivory into the USA. Yet, as has been reported, most recently in Salon, works of art containing ivory were brought into the States earlier this year and subsequently dismembered on the instruction of FWS. Of course it is pointless and philistine for works of art to be brutally destroyed, but at a time of widespread public debate, it is also absurd that the predictable consequences for uncertified importation were ignored. Well-reasoned discussions being furthered, for example, by the American museum world, risk being undermined by such foolishness.

The drip-drip impact of evidence concerning the illicit trade in poached ivory, often to the Far East, coupled with harrowing pictures of elephant carcasses and bonfires of tusks in Africa (the latest emotive event was in Nairobi), swell support for a complete ban among those who are disinclined to differentiate between illegal slaughter and smuggling, and the fully regulated movement of CITES-certified works of art.

Recently, France’s Minister of the Environment, Ségolène Royal, announced that she would introduce a complete ban on all trade in ivory within France. She also called for similar measures elsewhere. It is welcome news that she is adding her voice to international pressure on the illicit trade in endangered species. But, like so many public figures, Royal also appears to be in danger of confusing the preservation of wildlife with the utterly different issue of works of art, created over the millennia, that happen to be made of, or contain, ivory. Surely a country as deeply civilised as France will not wish to undermine the study, exhibition and collecting of many elements of its own culture, including those hugely admired and much studied Gothic ivories, which act as cultural ambassadors across the globe.

A major ‘Conference of the Parties to CITES’ is due to take place in Johannesburg from 24 September to 5 October. Now is the moment for all of us who offer unswerving support to saving threatened species, to help have recognised, with confidence and passion, that pre-convention works of art made of or containing ivory offer no threat, and are equally worthy of preservation.

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