Most ivory bought in Europe is illegal, investigation finds

A game warden holds an elephant tusk at the National Parks of Zimbabwe headquarters in Harare, Zimbabwe, 02 June 2016. Zimbabwe has been accumulating stock piles of ivory for four decades and currently there is 93 tonnes of ivory worth over 15 million US dollars. Zimbabwe does not burn its ivory because it wants to keep its natural resources. [EPA/STR]

Almost three-quarters of all ivory sold legally in Europe is in fact illicit and comes from tusks of elephants that were killed after the 1990 ban on ivory trade, according to an investigation released on Tuesday (10 July).

“We tested over 100 ivory products legally purchased from all over Europe, and 75% turned out to be illegal,” said campaign group Avaaz, which released the findings on Tuesday (10 July).

The investigation was carried out by Oxford University labs over a sample of 109 ivory items purchased from shops in Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the UK.

Of the samples analysed, almost three quarters (74.3%) was found to be illegal ivory masquerading as antiques.

In Spain, Italy and Bulgaria, 100% of the ivory items purchased were illegal. France was among the worst performers, with 85% of the items bought there regarded as illegal under EU law, despite tighter national rules around certificates for antiques introduced a year ago. In fact, 100% of the ivory traded in France would be illegal under French law, which is stricter than European rules.

Illegal ivory freely available across Europe

According to Avaaz, the investigation confirmed what it suspected for a long time – illegal ivory from recently slaughtered elephants is freely available for purchase across Europe.

19% of the samples came from elephants alive in the 1990s or 2000s, making them certain to be from animals that were recently killed, Avaaz said. And 45% of the ivory samples came from tusks that grew in the 1970s and 1980s, which makes it probable that the elephants were killed after the 1989 CITES ivory ban.

Those conclusions could be drawn with full certainty thanks to a technique known as radiocarbon dating, which compares the three different isotopes of carbon.

“Because so much radiocarbon was released after 1955 with the atomic bomb test, we can be absolutely sure that the piece of ivory really dates to after 1955,” said David Chivall, the lead scientist who carried the lab test over the ivory items.

“I find that really shocking,” said Chivall who works at Oxford University’s research laboratory for archaeology and the history of art.

The finding was not as surprising to Avaaz campaigners, however.

“This bombshell evidence proves beyond doubt that illegal ivory is being sold across Europe,” said Bert Wander, campaign director at Avaaz. “It must spark the end of this bloody trade. Every day the sale of these trinkets continues is a day closer to wiping out majestic elephants forever.”

A momentous decision on elephant ivory falls to Europe

China and the UK have joined the US in closing their domestic ivory markets. It is now time for the EU to follow their footsteps if we are to give Africa’s elephants a fighting chance to survive the current onslaught from global criminal syndicates increasingly involved in the poaching and distribution of ivory, argues Catherine Novelli.

Sales of ivory are banned in Europe since 1990. But under EU rules, ivory dating from before 1947 can still be freely traded because these products can be considered as antiques. Ivory from 1947-1990 can be sold but only with a permit.

All items in the study were either advertised as pre-1947 antiques or did not mention age at all. “For the first time, this study shows that this legal trade is covering up an illegal trade,” the campaigners said, calling on the EU to take action.

Attention turning to Europe after US, China bans

China and the US imposed a near total ban on domestic ivory sales during the last months of the Obama administration. In April, the UK announced its own domestic ivory ban with even tougher measures.

Attention is now turning to the European Commission, which is currently reviewing EU restrictions on ivory trade. And according to Avaaz, the study “provides a clear and categorical answer to that question: they do not”.

United States to tighten restrictions on ivory trade

The United States will impose tough restrictions on the trade in ivory from African elephants, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Thursday (2 June). Notable exceptions include antiques and musical instruments. EURACTIV’s partner Journal de l’Environnement reports.

EU action plan on wildlife trafficking

The situation is urgent as between 2002 and 2013, the forest elephants of Central Africa declined by 65%. Savannah elephants have likewise been hard hit in some strongholds, with losses of 60% in Tanzania alone in the past five years.

EU citizens appear to be supportive of a ban. A recent public consultation on the EU ivory market resulted in some 89,000 responses, which is the third highest response to an EU public consultation.

MEPs are also supportive of a ban, with more than 90 lawmakers recently urging the EU to implement a total ban on its domestic ivory market.

There is hope that things could change, however. Karmenu Vella, the EU’s environment commissioner, said on Twitter that  the investigation brought “valuable info” to the debate on ivory, and announced he will meet with Avaaz activists on Tuesday (10 July).

There is also growing awareness at the national level. In June, environment ministers from the 28 EU member states adopted a European Action Plan against wildlife trafficking, presented by the European Commission in February this year.

This followed a decision by EU justice ministers who agreed the month before that environmental crimes – including wildlife trafficking and waste crimes – would be one of the EU’s ten priorities for the fight against serious and organised crime during the 2018-21 policy cycle.

Europe cracks down on wildlife trafficking

EU environment ministers this Monday (20 June) adopted the European Action Plan against wildlife trafficking, presented by the European Commission in February this year. EURACTIV’s partner Journal de l’Environnement reports.

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