The Global Anti-Ivory Movement Just Got a Major Boost From One of the World's Leading Conservatives

“On animal welfare we will take the tough action necessary to deal with those whose callousness or greed inflicts pain and suffering on innocent creatures. At the moment the maximum sentence for animal cruelty is just six months. I believe that when we face deliberate, calculating and sadistic behavior, we need to deploy the full force of the law to show we will not tolerate evil. Which is why we will bring forward legislation to increase punishments for the most horrific acts of animal cruelty to five-year sentences. Animals are sentient beings, they are in our care, they deserve our protection.”

Those are not the words of the leaders of Britain’s Labour Party or Liberal Party. They were recently spoken by a leading Tory politician, Michael Gove, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, in the United Kingdom.

It was a fabulous speech, and it’s a reminder that animal protection is not the province of any political party. It is a universal value, and politicians of every stripe should embrace the tenets of animal protection. (Recently, I wrote about how Republicans and Democrats are collaborating on U.S. legislation to create a federal anti-cruelty statute, which is long overdue.)

It’s clear that these were not just platitudes from the British environment minister. Yesterday, he announced that the U.K. would seek to ban the ivory trade in that country, with very minimal exceptions such as for certified antique musical instruments and museum acquisitions. The E.U. is also considering a similar policy, and it is the biggest exporter of ivory to China and Hong Kong, while the U.K. is the world’s largest exporter of legal ivory. A consultation on the U.K. plan would begin immediately, and draft legislation covering a ban on sales and exports is likely in the new year.

Meanwhile here, in the United States, a bill is moving forward in the Massachusetts legislature that would prohibit the sale of ivory and rhino horn. If it passes, Massachusetts would join seven other states — California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada — that have passed similar anti-wildlife trafficking laws. We are grateful for the efforts of state Rep. Lori Ehrlich and state Sen. Jason Lewis who introduced this legislation.

The HSUS this week released an undercover investigation that found elephant ivory jewelry and trinkets of dubious origins for sale across the Commonwealth. The investigation, which was conducted over 12 days, found nearly 700 ivory items for sale by 64 vendors in Massachusetts stores, an auction, outdoor markets and an antique festival. Multiple ivory sellers deliberately mislabeled ivory items as “bone” or intentionally omitted the word “ivory” from items’ descriptions, with some sellers admitting that ivory “puts people off” and they “don’t want to get into trouble.” One seller even offered our investigator tips for smuggling ivory out of the country, including wearing it or claiming it is bone. Other sellers offered to write misleading or false information onto sales receipts or “whatever information” the investigator wanted.

Our investigator also found that none of the ivory sellers could provide documentation verifying the age or origin of the ivory. Without documentation it is impossible to know whether items were imported in violation of federal law. Several ivory sellers stated that they had much more ivory than what was visible in their stores but didn’t display it because they are nervous about government oversight or negative public opinion.

Massachusetts has been implicated in the transnational trafficking in elephant ivory and rhino horns. In late July, a Boston federal court arraigned the head of a wildlife smuggling ring in an alleged conspiracy to illegally export $700,000 worth of items made from rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory, and coral, obtained in six U.S. states, from Concord, Massachusetts, to Hong Kong. A Boston Globe investigative report in 2015 found “brisk trade in illicit ivory” within the state.

In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service instituted a near-total ban on importing ivory and in the interstate trade in African elephant ivory. Last year, Congress also enacted the Eliminate, Neutralize and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Act to crack down on international wildlife trafficking. However, federal regulations do not address intrastate trade in African elephant ivory. States must also do their part to ensure that their laws sufficiently protect at-risk animals.

But this is not a campaign focused just on nations in the west. China is shutting down its ivory carving shops throughout the country, with half of them shuttered earlier this year. It’s time for Japan, which may now be the largest ivory market in the world, to join the growing worldwide consensus on this subject.

No one needs an ivory trinket, especially when the cost is so high for the animals and for our planet. Poachers kill as many as 100 elephants a day for their tusks. In September 2016, the Great Elephant Census revealed a disturbing 30 percent decline in the number of savanna elephants since 2007. Forest elephants in Central Africa have experienced a 65 percent reduction in their populations.

Protecting elephants, stopping cruelty and advocating for other animal protection policies is not Democrat or Republican, Labour or Tory, Green or Social Democrat. It is just decency. Every civilized nation, and every good person, should stand for these principles. But stand we must, with tangible actions that match the words.

This article was originally published on Wayne Pacelle's blog, A Humane Nation.

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