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An international agreement in 1989 to effectively ban international trade in ivory was brought in under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). This agreement listed African elephant ivory on Appendix I to the Convention in 1990, meaning trade in ivory was limited to “exceptional circumstances.” This did not affect legal domestic markets, which were allowed to continue, and did so in many countries.

However, there has been rising international concern over the declining population of African savanna elephants. Between 2007 and 2014 the savanna elephant population declined by 30 percent, largely due to poaching. A recent census of the savanna elephant population found that “elephants are struggling both inside and outside parks.”

International action on ivory

In September 2015, the then US President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping pledged to enact “near complete bans” on the import and export of ivory. As a result In June 2016 the US Government introduced new regulations and China announced that it would introduce a ban on all ivory trade and processing activities by the end of 2017. France introduced a “near complete ban” on ivory trading in France and all overseas French territories in 2016. And in October 2016 the Conference of Parties to CITES accepted a non-binding resolution to phase out domestic ivory markets.

UK ban on ivory sales

In September 2016 the UK Government announced a plan to introduce a ban on the sale of ‘modern day ivory’ – that is, all ‘worked’ ivory produced after 1947. Any works produced prior to this date would be classed as ‘antique’ and trade in them would permitted. The proposed ban was criticised on the grounds that it did not provide a total ban, as set out in the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto. In response, an e-petition with over 100,000 signatures called on the Government to ‘Shut down the domestic ivory market in the UK’.

Following this, in October 2017, the Government announced a proposal to introduce a total ban on ivory sales in the UK and published a consultation. A total ban, with some exceptions, was announced in April 2018. This was followed by the publication of the Ivory Bill in May 2018.

The Ivory Bill

The Bill will prohibit the commercial use of ivory items or those containing ivory regardless of their age, with some exceptions. As set out in the explanatory notes the ban will not affect “ownership of items made of, or containing ivory, including, inheriting, donating or bequeathing”. Wildlife organisations have welcomed the ban. However, many antique traders have expressed concerns at the extent of the proposals and how they will work in practice. The Bill was not amended during Committee Stage. There was significant debate on several areas, including whether the Bill should be extended to cover ivory from non-elephant species.

Further Reading: House of Lords Library briefing on The impact of the trade in ivory on endangered species, 15 December 2017

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