My letter to the Advisory
Committee is below this summary. To jump directly to it,
Summary of the USFWS Advisory Committee on Wildlife
from a member of the International Ivory Society:
I’m writing to you from a hotel room in Washington DC, already late for my
drive back home. Before I hit the road, I want to share with you what happened
yesterday at the subject meeting. I’ll provide more details when I get back,
but here are the high points:
The Bad News
1. Special interest groups are already lobbying Congress to rush changes to
the law that will create SEVERE penalties for anyone involved with wildlife
trafficking, which will include Domestic Ivory Trade under current
proposals. They want to make trading ivory punishable under RICO, Federal Money
Laundering statutes, and the Travel Act. These statutes would make violations
of the law easier for federal authorities to prove, and the Advisory Council is
arguing for increasing penalties to felonies with 5 year prison sentences. They
are also pursuing new restitution laws that will allow the government to
“disgorge profits from ivory traders” and “return the money to the state or
country of origin.” Where no state or country can be identified, they want to
create a new slush fund to use to enhance enforcement and conservation efforts.
2. They are working hard to build Congressional support to push these
changes through. Sen Diane Feinstein is leading the charge in the Senate. They
are looking for a member of the House to lead the effort. When talking to
Congressional members, they are focusing on capturing Chinese kingpins in the
poached ivory trade, so members of Congress have no idea that these laws could
be used against US citizens who currently and have always abided by the law
working with pre-ban ivory.
3. Although they say their focus is on “5 or 7 Kingpins in China”, they
repeatedly said the United States needs to lead the way with enforcement of a
Domestic Ivory Ban to be a model for the rest of the world to emulate. They
know the real problems with illicit trade in poached ivory are in Asia, but they
are frustrated by their inability to do much about it in foreign countries.
They expressed dismay over what they characterized in the United States as the
lowest number of prosecutions in wildlife trafficking in the world, and concern
that typical US prison sentences were only 2 months of incarceration. The
enforcement advocates clearly want more money and manpower to prosecute many
more people in the US to drive up their statistics to “impress other
countries.” Since there is no poaching taking place in the US and USFWS has
been effective at keeping poached ivory out of our country, who do you think
they will go after?
4. The Advisory Council is advocating for measures to reduce demand for
ivory worldwide and “change people’s behavior” through advertising campaigns and
enlisting Hollywood celebrities. They compared what is currently legal ivory
trade to smoking and illegal drug trades (repeatedly).
5. The Advisory Council is also advocating for public/private partnerships
with corporations and non-governmental organizations to help inform them what
can be done to fight wildlife trafficking, which would include domestic ivory
trade if they get their way. They talked about eBay, Coke, Pepsi and other
companies that they’d like to see help them. AT NO TIME DID THEY TALK ABOUT
PARTNERING WITH ANYONE WHO DEALS WITH LEGAL IVORY IN THE US, AND IT IS CLEAR
THEY HAVE MADE NO EFFORT TO REACH OUT TO LEGAL USERS OF IVORY TO SOLICIT THEIR
The Good News
1. The Advisory Council was largely ignorant about the legal use of
domestic ivory, and they expressed surprise and concern about the number of
people who wrote in expressing concern leading up to this meeting. Clearly,
they see serious potential political problems if the legal ivory trade organizes
to oppose this ban. I challenged them directly on their failure to include
people who deal with legal ivory in their deliberations and proposals
2. One of the key members of the Council advocating for changes in the
law admitted to me that the Ivory Ban “came down from above” and the he had not
even read the domestic ivory ban proposals until shortly before this meeting.
He said to me after the meeting concluded that the proposed ban was extremely
broad and he understands why people working with Ivory today are in a panic.
3. There were about 25 people who came out to comment about the Ivory Ban,
and about half spoke eloquently about reasons to oppose or soften the ban.
Representatives of musical instrument dealers, orchestras, auctioneers, antique
collectors, knife dealers and scrimshaw artists stood up and told the Council
the Draconian impact that the ban would have on their lives without saving a
single African elephant. The Council was clearly attentive and concerned about
their comments. There were also animal rights activists who made comments, some
of which were quite extreme (i.e. elephants are “more evolved than humans” and
“all ivory comes from poached elephants”). The Activist’s comments spoke for
themselves and added nothing new to the discussion.
4. Sandra Brady’s comments stood out from the others. Sandra captured how
the current legal system has failed to prevent poaching and the futility of a
domestic ban on that objective. She also did a great job personalizing the
devastating impact on small businesses and the lives of artists, artisans and
collectors who have always complied with the law and who share the goal of
ending the slaughter of poached elephants.
Bottom Line – we haven’t stopped the Domestic Ivory Ban freight train, but we
may have slowed it down. By the end of the meeting, Advisory Council members
acknowledged that the Domestic Ivory Ban posed genuine problems and political
challenges. They noted that everyone agreed on measures they want to take to
stop illegal poaching (prosecuting poachers and traffickers of poached ivory),
and but for the Domestic Ivory Ban their proposals would not be controversial.
The timing of new rules is not yet clear. There will be something published in
the next few weeks addressing CITES that possibly could include revocation of an
existing special rule under the Environmental Species Act. This could set up a
legal framework prohibiting interstate trade of ivory. They said to expect a 30
day comment period on that rule.
The “final rule” should come out in June, after which there will be a comment
period. We specifically asked that these rules not be issued as “interim final
rules” which would go into effect immediately, and instead asked that any rules
published be subject to comment before they can be enforced. I think we have a
good chance of getting this because of the wide ranging concerns raised, but
nothing is guaranteed.
What you need to do
1. Call your Congressman and Senators TODAY! Activist groups are already
lobbying Congressmen heavily, and they are totally misrepresenting what the
regulations and legal changes will do to you. You need to inform them about
what the proposed changes in the law will do to you, your collections, your
businesses, and your families. The message is simple – We all want to stop
elephant poaching, but these laws punish innocent Americans, not elephant
poachers or illegal traders in Asia.
2. Call your trade organizations and make sure they are representing you.
Groups like the NRA, AARP, collectors associations, professional associations,
knife clubs, gun clubs, industry lobbying groups – all of them need to hear from
you and be educated about the severity of this threat. These calls have a
multiplier effect when they lead back to law makers, and they are starting to
get people’s attention!
3. Spread the word on social media. Use Facebook, Twitter, e-mail lists,
internet forums, and all the ways you communicate people to spread the word
about what the government is doing and why the Domestic Ivory Ban is a very bad
Corr Mitchell LLC
My letter to the Advisory Committee
on Wildlife Trafficking:
March 17, 2014
Special Assistant, USFWS International Affairs
Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking
4401 North Fairfax Drive, Room 110
Arlington, VA 22203
To the Wildlife Trafficking Advisory Council:
You need to reconsider a total ban on elephant ivory sales in the United States.
Instead of banning the sale of elephant ivory outright, more effort should go
into enforcement of current laws and regulations, and logistical support of our
African partners in an effort to save the two species of African elephant from
extinction. Some of the reasons for not banning commerce in elephant ivory
include legality and enforcement issues, the effect it will have on worldwide
ivory prices and illicit trade, and the effect it will have on the elephants
Ivory of one sort or another has been part of human culture for thousands of
years. Some of the earliest known 3-dimensional artworks (“Venus” figurines) are
carved in ivory. It has been used for functional and decorative items ever
since, and people treasure it. By banning ivory sales and other transfers, these
items will be rendered worthless. Americans will not sit idly by while the value
of their investments is nullified. If you are determined in your present course,
you must consider just compensation, just as if the government wanted to put a
road through someone’s house. This qualifies as a “taking” under the Fifth
Amendment, and you can bet that someone will have the resources to take it to
the Supreme Court if necessary. In addition to its unconstitutionality, it would
become an enforcement nightmare, taking valuable personnel away from protecting
our own native endangered species. By criminalizing otherwise law-abiding
citizens, this action would actually increase illicit trade in ivory which, by a
statement issued by the USFWS in 2012, is nearly nonexistent. Additionally, the
exception to allow people to import up to two trophy elephants per year is
ludicrous. How are the hunters or their heirs supposed to dispose of these?
Their sale or transfer would be illegal! One could say you are ignoring the
elephant in the room…
I am a scrimshander, and use almost exclusively “fossil” ivories – mammoth
and old walrus ivories, as well as repurposing old piano keys. Even though these
sources would be allowable under the proposed regulation, I am afraid that my
stock may be confiscated under the assumption that it is fresh elephant ivory. I
have been practicing my craft since before the ban on whale hunting. Maybe you
should examine how that was handled – it was a much more measured approach.
Hunting of all cetacean species and import of whale products was banned in 1974.
A 5-year grace period allowed sale of items such as whale teeth so that dealers
wouldn’t be left holding the bag. After that, a limited number of permits were
issued, allowing certain dealers to engage in commerce of these beautifully
carved or scrimshawed items. Under that management plan, populations of the most
critically endangered species – sperm and humpback whales – have risen sharply
in the last 40 years. A similar plan could work to the elephants’ advantage.
Import of elephant ivory has been banned for over 20 years per the CITES treaty,
and illicit trade is virtually nonexistent in the USA. The cessation of trade
will not save one African elephant alive today, and may actually doom them to
extinction, as I will explain in the following paragraphs.
Banning trade in the USA, as well as destruction of ivory, may make people
here feel they have the “moral high ground”, but it also sends the wrong message
to the wrong people. Making all ivory in the USA worthless, or destroying it,
just makes its value greater elsewhere. Demand stays the same in the orient,
where people are told that the tusks “just drop off”, but the supply has been
decreased. Any freshman economics student will tell you the price will increase,
and that will make poaching more lucrative. I’m sure that speculators in China
and elsewhere are already buying up ivory, banking on the elephant’s extinction.
Ivory prices would soar, making it worthwhile to develop black market trade
networks and production of fake documentation here as well.
In addition to my hobby as a scrimshander, I am a biology professor at a
state university with a specialty in animal population dynamics modeling and
ecology. I was surprised and dismayed to find that there are no large-animal
population ecologists on the Advisory Panel. They could tell you that the recent
sharp decline in elephant populations could be temporary – all you have to do is
make it too difficult for the poachers to operate. If elephant stocks were
managed effectively in a manner similar to the way we manage our continent’s
largest herbivore, the bison, indigenous people would begin to see that it could
be to their advantage to protect elephants, rather than greet the poachers with
open arms. It could be a source of income to them. Also, elephant populations
won’t dwindle as quickly as some doomsayers predict. The poachers are going
after males first, because their tusks are up to 3 times the size of the
females’ tusks. Since elephants are promiscuous, you only really need one male
for as many as 200 females to be reasonably sure that most of the cows of
reproductive age are either pregnant or nursing. Their basic reproductive
biology is similar to humans: females become reproductive between 12 and 15
years of age, and stop at about age 50. Their time between pregnancies is a bit
greater – 4.5 to 5 years – because the gestation time is 19 months and they
don’t go into estrus again until they have stopped nursing. Mortality of infants
and adolescents is roughly similar to that of humans in the USA in 1900, because
aunties actively protect and nurture the young. Under reasonably good conditions
an elephant population could double in under 40 years. The biggest long-term
threat to elephants is not poaching, but increase in human populations in their
native range. In order to feed their families, African farmers and herdsmen are
forced into areas where conflict with elephants is much more likely: the
traditional grazing areas and migration routes of the elephants. Of course, this
opens a whole other can of worms, and most people are not prepared or willing to
deal with it.
To reiterate, banning domestic commerce in elephant ivory will not save a
single elephant alive today, since nearly all of the ivory here entered before
the 1989 ban on international trade. It would effectively criminalize hundreds
of thousands of Americans and is unconstitutional. It would put a heavy strain
on the enforcement capabilities of the USFWS, possibly putting some of our rare
native species at greater risk. It would not only drive up international ivory
prices (making poaching more lucrative), but it would also foster illicit trade,
and development of organized black market trade here, much as Prohibition
fostered the growth of organized crime. Most importantly, it would affect
elephant populations negatively. Higher black market prices will drive
speculation on elephant ivory, which will eventually doom the species. Treating
existing ivory as a commodity and managing elephant herds for a consistent
supply is a much better way to discourage poaching.
Mark Thogerson, Ph.D., scrimshander and population biologist
875 Carlton St.
Muskegon, MI 49442