Another tragic casualty of Wildlife Terrorism in Chad, Africa –which happens ninety-six times a day. Image credit: © Jeff Hutchens / Getty Images

The critical importance of continued ivory and rhino horn trade bans in the United States

Tusk Task Force
May 14, 2018 · 12 min read

By Ashley Prout McAvey MEM | Founder of Vermont for Wildlife, Vermont Ambassador of Elephants DC, and Tusk Task Force’s Tusk Ambassador for Vermont


“Meanwhile, as leaders in Europe, the Middle East, and the U.S. strategize about how to stop the ever expanding network of international terrorist organizations. Somewhere in Africa a park ranger stands his post, holding an AK-47 and a handful of bullets, manning the front line for all of us.”

— Bryan Christy, investigative journalist, “How Killing Elephants finances Terror in Africa,” National Geographic magazine, August 2015


Earth is currently in its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — an extinction greater than the loss of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We are losing 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural “background” rate of 1–5 species per year with loss of dozens each day. Unlike the past five mass extinctions which were caused by natural occurrences such as asteroids and volcanoes, this one has one main culprit: Humans.

Tigers are being slaughtered for traditional Chinese “medicine” without scientific evidence that it works. There are 3,200 left in the wild when just a century ago there were more than 100,000. There are fewer than 25,000 of the magnificent rhino in Africa, all because a pound of their horn — made up of a substance no different than human fingernails and hair — is worth more than a pound of gold or cocaine. Rhino horn is also used in traditional “medicine” in Vietnam and China to purportedly cure headaches and other ailments — with zero medical science — proving there is no efficacy aside from the mere placebo effect, if any.

On March 19, the world lost its last male Northern White Rhino, a 45 year old rhino named Sudan. The giraffe is, too, experiencing what is known as a “silent extinction” having lost 40% of its population in a mere 15 years. Additionally, our animals of the seas are waging similar wars with just as desperate statistics. Wildlife trafficking, the fourth largest illegal trade in the world, after drugs, counterfeit goods, and human trafficking is an escalating US $19 billion (£14/€15.8 billion) a year global crisis.

To absorb the enormity of the situation, one is left with two distinct paths — to ignore it because of the immeasurable immensity, complexity, and hopelessness that there is nothing to do aside from sit back and watch or, alternatively, do anything we can here in the United States to make a clear statement that we will not be complacent nor culpable — that we can and will do something.

The latter path is precisely what happened in 2014 when New Jersey became the first state in the nation to ban the sale of ivory and rhino horn within its state borders. In looking at the plight of the elephant and rhino in particular, New Jersey realized it did have a say and its loud and clear statement is resonating around the country, and, indeed, around the world.

First, to understand how dire the story is for elephants, New Jersey recognized the facts. An ele­phant is slaughtered every 15 minutes. That is approximately 96 elephants each day. They are being killed faster than they can reproduce — with a 22 month gestational period, the longest of any mammal — which puts them on the fast track to extinction. Scientists predict that at the current rate of slaughter, ele­phants will be gone from the wild in our lifetime, some saying as soon as ten years if changes do not come quickly enough.

For a micro case example, Tanzania has lost a devastating 60% of its once vibrant elephant population in just five years, between 2009 and 2014. The Great Elephant Census — the most comprehensive wildlife survey in history funded by the Paul G. Allen Foundation — recently showed a 30% decline in African savanna elephants between 2007 and 2014.

New Jersey also recognized the reported links between the ivory trade and terrorist groups. Unlike the ivory trade of the past, the US $1.4 billion (£1/€1.1 billion) ivory trade of today feeds crime syndicates and armed militias such as al-Shabaab, Janjaweed, Boko Haram, the Mai Mai Raia Mutomboki, and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). These terrorist groups use blood ivory to finance terrorism and other illicit enterprises all over the world.

The ivory trade is so lucrative and poachers’ activities are so rampant that ivory has been given the name of “white gold” or “blood ivory.” Today raw ivory costs more than US $1,500 (£1,100/€1,254) a pound, a figure which fluctuates with speculative investors in the black markets hedging on extinction to increase the value of their ivory harvest.

Another vital element of the poaching crisis, is the massive human toll. On April 9, five rangers and a driver were killed in Virunga National Park (VNP) of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Many sources believe the Mai Mai Raia Mutomboki militia are responsible for this human slaughter. It was the most deadly day for rangers in a park that has lost more than 170 rangers simply trying to protect the park’s animals in the past 20 years alone. Worldwide, in the last decade, over a thousand park rangers have been killed by poachers while on duty. The loss of park rangers has profound ripple effects across the local communities and economies. With each ranger killed, there remain 8–10 dependents who are then left destitute and in desperate situations.

Recent testimony by Bryan Christy, Ex­plorer Program Fellow of the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration, to the U.S. House of Representatives illustrates another side of how vitally important rangers are. He writes that in places such as Virunga, Garamba, and Zakouma, forests in Central Africa harbor terrorist and militia groups so park rangers truly become the sole police in remote communities, protecting not only wildlife, but the villagers who live there.

Another human casualty of the poaching crisis is the enormous impact on those of the 7.7 million people in Africa who work in the wildlife tourism sector and who de­pend on tourism for their livelihoods. When tourism companies and related economic activities are forced to shut down because the wildlife they depend on has disappeared, these people take a direct hit. The end result may also force the disenfranchised and affected individuals to take up the lucrative poaching market as their only income source.

But why did all of this matter to New Jersey? Why did New Jersey have to act? New Jersey saw that as long as it allowed a free and open ivory trade, it was part of the problem. It was unequivocally condoning the trade, the slaughter, and a funding source to the worst criminals in the world. Many people assume that federal regulations are all that is needed, but what is continually overlooked is the fact that federal laws regulate import, export, and interstate (across the state lines) of ivory but not intrastate (within a state) sales. In addition, federal laws have broad exemptions which result in loopholes that allow large amounts of ivory to enter state borders where it is sold at the retail level.

This retail trade makes up the ivory trade and is a huge cover for the illegal trade. New Jersey saw that even if federal laws were sufficient to halt the free trade of ivory at the state level, only 10% of all of the illegal ivory in this country is confiscated at our borders. This means that 90% of illegal ivory (largely carved/worked ivory, jewelry, and netsuke) is still getting through our nation’s borders and into the state marketplace (often marketed as antiques) due to limited enforcement.

But the bigger picture is that any trade puts a value on ivory. Some may say, “This elephant died a hundred years ago! What does it matter if I sell this ivory today? The elephant is already dead!” The reality is that selling that ivory today is like killing the elephant all over again because selling it creates value and value creates demand and demand is only met one way — by the slaughter of living, breathing creatures today. The only solution is shutting down the trade.

History from the 1989 CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) international ban is proof that this concept works, the demand shrinks, and the animals — along with the millions of people who depend on them for a stable Africa with vibrant tourism — have a chance. In 1989, the global ban on ivory trade, stating that only ivory harvested prior to 1989 could be sold — led to a diminished carving industry in China and a de­crease in demand for tusks. Elephant populations rebounded to the point that one-off sales were allowed. In hind sight, those in charge admit that this was a grave and historically disastrous decision, leading to the one-off sales of 1999 to Japan and 2008 to Japan and China which completely reignited the crisis and demand to the epic catastrophe of today.

New Jersey also recognized the important of a clean bill, without exemptions. Any permission of the trade allows for abuse. Recent studies have found more than half the ivory on the “an­tique” market in the United States is actually illegal and sourced from recently killed elephants. In some places the figure is as high as 90%. An experienced USFWS Special Agent testified in Vermont that in his years of experience, the best and most effective bill and the easiest to enforce is a clean bill without exemptions.

New Jersey did it right. Their bold statement has set the stage. More than a year after their com­plete ban, Sen. Raymond Lesniak, the NJ State Senator champion of their complete ban, stated,

“New Jersey’s comprehensive ban on ivory and rhino horns, which only allows currently owned ivory and rhino horns to be transferred through estates or to museums, has been in effect for nearly a year without a hitch and has given a huge boost to the worldwide effort to save elephants and rhinos from extinction.”

Since New Jersey’s historic assertion, six other states have followed suit with strong ivory sales bans on their books. These states include New York, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

The United States has the second biggest market in the world by most sources and one of the world’s largest by all. The powerful movement to take a stand against the slaughter, starting with New Jersey, reverberated around the world and influenced China, the largest market for ivory, to ban ivory beginning December 31, 2017. What is happening in China is the precise proof that bans today still work. Indeed, a new report has unveiled that the price of raw ivory is plummeting there.

Researchers at Save the Elephants found that the wholesale price in early 2014 was US $2,100 (£1,550/€1,755) per kilogram where as now that same kilo has dropped to US $730 (£539/€610). With mounting pressure from its citizens and organizations from around the world, the United Kingdom rejected the blood ivory trade in April by implementing one of the toughest bans on ivory sales, with over 88% of the more than 70,000 UK respondents — including Tusk Task Force — to its consultancy in favor of the action to close all ivory trade in British jurisdictions. The European Union is set to follow suit pending a decision from the European Council in Brussels.

Some U.S. citizens and legislators have made the erroneous conclusion that because China has banned sales, and perhaps additionally as there is proof that the ban is indeed working and prices have dropped, we no longer need to worry about our own nation’s part in the trade. However, while China’s news is good, in no way does it exonerate us for what we still need to finish here.

On the contrary, the stakes now could not be higher for our nation’s next move. It has been proven time and again that when one jurisdiction closes its markets, trade may flourish in places where it is still open. To ensure that the 7 states with strong laws are truly effective and that the trade doesn’t merely shift to other states, the rest of the coun­try must follow suit, state by state.

Recent policy decisions of the current White House also make state actions all the more necessary. In a March 1 memo, the Trump Administration lifted a ban on importing sport-hunted trophies of elephants from certain African countries. On top of that, the Trump Administration’s budget proposal for 2019 includes cuts to the protection of 44 species which includes elephants, tigers, gorillas, turtles, and many others. Eclipsing all of this, there are have been numerous reports of extensive attacks by the Trump Administration on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) — the backbone to wildlife protection and the world’s standard for species conservation — having saved 99% of the species under its care.

The ESA is the one thing standing between the survival of critically endangered species and their demise and is a law that 90% of Americans wish to keep intact despite the threat of extinction to its own survival. Despite this overwhelming public support for wildlife conservation, the Trump Administration denied 25 highly imperiled species for protection under the ESA in October 2017.

Other arguments against continued state bans point to crushes, some deeming them a “waste” of ivory and that that ivory should somehow be put back in the market. On the contrary, countries around the world have crushed existing stock piles of illegal ivory to end the trade and ensure illegal ivory never makes it into the global marketplace. Some will ask, why not sell the ivory and use the money for conservation?

Dr. Paula Kahumbu, ex­ecutive director of WildlifeDirect, stated that this would be akin to selling cocaine seizures to pay for rehabilitation of drug addicts. In order to save this species from extinction, the lust for ivory must end today, unequivocally.

Some may point to legal trophy hunts as proof that the situation can’t be as bad as it appears. Wrong, again. While trophy hunting for threatened species is increasingly controversial in and of itself, the number of permits given for elephants is a tiny percentage of the 35,000 elephants illegally poached every year. As a miniscule piece of any national economy, revenue from trophy hunting never accounts for more than 0.27 percent of GDP. For tourism, trophy hunting revenues ac­count for only 1.8% of overall tourism in 9 countries that were studied.

Even pro-hunting sources find that only 3% of the money actually reaches the rural community where the hunting occurs. Further, an elephant tusk is worth approximately US $21,000 (£15,502/€17,558) on the black market whereas a recent study showed that the economic benefits of elephant conservation are staggering and is worth more — reporting that the estimated lost benefits of killed elephants in Africa is US $25 million (£18.4/€20.9 million) annually in tourist revenue. With an average age of 54 years in the wild, the comparison couldn’t be more obvious on why elephants should be protected to benefit the communities where it roams. Therefore, the focus should be on preservation of the African (Loxodonta africana) and Asian (Elephas maximus) elephant to do the most good.

There really is no time to waste. We do not have the liberty of a “wait and see” approach to what will happen if we don’t take decisive action today. As Dr. Paula Kahumbu accurately stated,

“We do not have time to politely persuade the generations of buyers to give up their addiction for ivory. The only solution is a permanent ban on domestic and international trade in ivory across the world.”

And in this nation, that starts with the 43 states left to do their part. We have seven down, forty-three to go.


Ashley Prout McAvey is a graduate in Environmental Biology of Yale College and a Master of Environmental Management (MEM) from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She first visited Africa when she was 16 and saw first-hand the devastation of human greed on a continent and its wildlife. She immediately fell in love with the beauty of the people, place, and wildlife there and she hopes the movement to ban ivory sales at the state level will continue swiftly. She feels indebted to the men and women who have died protecting the continent’s most majestic creatures and she is fueled by their sacrifice to spread awareness and action here in the United States, which is, sadly, still today one of the leading markets for ivory.

Vermont For Wildlife is an all-volunteer, grassroots organization dedicated to educate and raise awareness about the importance of wildlife conservation in the State of Vermont through public policy and legislative action, founded by Ashley Prout McAvey. Its mission is to keep fighting for Vermont to join other states who has stood up against extinction.


Join our mission, share our passion, and help build our vision to abolish all exploitation of wildlife and end the Extinction Economy worldwide at tusktaskforce.org.

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook to find out more on how to #RaiseTheShieldForWildlife to #StopWildlifeTerrorism and #EndExtinctionEconomy #SoThatWildlifeMayLive.

Together, we must be #UnitedForWildlife to #AbolishWildlifeTrafficking worldwide #ForWildlifeFreedom everywhere they roam.

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Our mission is to abolish all exploitation of wildlife and end the Extinction Economy worldwide. #RaiseTheShieldForWildlife #EndExtinctionEconomy

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