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On 21 September 2016 the Government announced a ban on the sale of ‘worked’ ivory produced after 1947 (pre-1947 ivory are classified as ‘antique’ and trade in them will be permitted). The Government plan on consulting with environmental groups, industry and other individuals on developing this ban on ‘modern day’ ivory sales. The Government have been criticised by some conservation groups for not going far enough in its ban.

Backbench Business Committee

This debate was selected by the Backbench Business Committee. In his recent submission to the Backbench Business Committee, Jeremy Lefroy MP said that he would like the Government to make some clear commitments about their intentions. He said the debate is about encouraging the Government in its course of action but asking them to go further:

Ideally, we would like the Government to make some clear commitments about what they intend to do about the ivory trade both in the UK and overseas. Clearly, we realise that there is a lot of work going on at the moment and it is more to encourage the Government on the course that they are pursuing now and to go further. The UK has shown leadership in this. His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge has also taken a great deal of interest in this. We want to encourage the Government to do more of what they are doing and to go further.[1]

Ban on modern day ivory sales

In their manifesto for the 2015 General election the Conservative Party said that they would ‘press for a total ban on ivory sales’.[2] In their 2010 manifesto they had also said they would ‘press for a total ban on ivory sales and the destruction of existing stockpiles’.[3]

On 21 September this year, the Government announced plans to ban the sale of ‘worked’ ivory produced since 1947. Ornaments and works of art dating prior to 1947 are classified as ‘antique’ and trade in them will be permitted. The sale or trade of raw or unworked tusks of any age is already illegal. The Government plan to ‘consult with environmental groups, industry and other relevant parties to establish how and when a ban could be introduced, as well as any necessary exemptions’ early in 2017.


On 20 September, prior to the 17th Conference of Parties to CITES (CoP17), held in South Africa between 24 September and 5 October 2016, Defra Minister, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, set out the Government’s actions towards securing a total ban on ivory sales in answer to a PQ:

The Government has conducted informal discussions with representatives of the arts and antique sector on the scale of legal trade in ivory currently taking place. An accurate assessment is challenging as records for antiques may not necessarily record an item as containing ivory where this is only a small component of a larger item. Extrapolation from available data indicates that sales of items containing ivory may be worth in the order of several tens of millions of pounds per annum.TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring organisation, has recently published its report: “A Rapid Survey of the UK ivory market”. Although not an exact comparison with a survey conducted in 2004, TRAFFIC’s survey found the number of market stalls offering ivory for sale had declined by approximately two-thirds and the number of items offered for sale had halved. No new or raw ivory was seen in any of the physical market outlets or online platforms; only one ivory item seen for sale was reportedly from after the legal cut-off (1947) for antique ivory being sold without Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) documentation within the EU. Ivory is a key UK wildlife crime priority with an enforcement action plan in place to tackle risk. For example, UK Border Force through Operation Quiver has in particular successfully targeted ivory sent through postal systems.We are actively exploring options with interested parties and other Government Departments about how to implement the UK Government’s manifesto commitment to press for a total ban on ivory sales. The UK has successfully lobbied for the EU-wide adoption of the existing UK ban on trade in raw ivory tusks, which was agreed through European Council Conclusions on an EU Action Plan on Wildlife Trafficking adopted in June. Trade in such tusks presents the greatest risk of poached ivory entering the legal market. In addition, these conclusions urged EU Member States to consider further measures to put a halt to commercial trade in ivory from elephants.[4] 

The Government’s announcement of the ban came just ahead of the 17th meeting of the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Conference of Parties. Environment Minister, Dr Thérèse Coffey, attended the conference on behalf of the Government. Ahead of the meeting she commented:

Working with other governments, I want to see strong outcomes from this conference to protect our precious global wildlife, including elephants, lions and rhinos. I hope the world takes note of the UK’s decisive action at this important time.[5]

The conference accepted a resolution to phase out domestic ivory markets and rejected the proposal to develop a ‘decision making mechanism’ which would allow international trade in ivory.[6]

Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) in Hanoi 

The UK Government supported Vietnam in holding a third “high level” conference on 17 November and which built on the London and Botswana conferences held in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

The intention of the UK Government at this conference was to focus on encouraging countries to take action on commitments they have already made. As stated by Lord Gardiner of Kimble in a recent Lords PQ:

The Government is working closely with Vietnam to support a successful conference that secures high level attendance that will maintain political momentum. In particular we want to focus on encouraging countries, including Vietnam itself, to take concerted action on the commitments they have already made.

Officials, both in London and Hanoi, have been in regular contact with a range of NGOs concerning preparations for the Conference, and anticipate continuing to do so up to and at the Conference.[7]

The UK’s commitments at the conference were:

  • Building on the commitment made during China’s State Visit to the UK in 2015, UK and China will adopt pragmatic measures to jointly tackle the illegal trade of wildlife products including ivory. To prevent smuggling of illegal wildlife products and effectively deter the offenders, UK and China will jointly develop and implement a law enforcement training project in Africa in 2017. With support from the range states, the training project will focus on enforcement, the identification of species and conservation issues.
  • The UK will fund Interpol to expand their work with key nations, tracking and intercepting illegal shipments of ivory, rhino horn and other illegal wildlife products.
  • The British military will train a new team of anti-poaching trackers to be deployed in African range states, beginning with Malawi in 2017.
  • The UK will commit up to £4 million to the International Consortium for Combatting Wildlife Crime to strengthen criminal justice systems and provide coordinated support at national, regional and international level to combat wildlife and forest crime [8]

The Conference’s statement lists commitments by all participating countries.

Comments on the ban

The Government has been called on by environmental organisations to ban all ivory trade in the UK.

Action for Elephants UK and 124 signatories wrote a letter to Prime Minister Theresa May on 24 September 2016, calling on the government to ban all ivory trade in the UK. The signatories were concerned that the proposed ban does not apply to all sales of ivory, including pre-1947 pieces, as they believe that:

the existence of a legal ivory trade serves as a cover for illegal sales of ivory, while continuing to perpetuate the cycle of supply and demand.[9]

The Government has been criticised by organisations such as Tusk, the conservation charity, for not going far enough, who said that, ‘The proposals do not represent a near-total ban as promised’.[10]


There is currently a petition, calling on the Government to ‘Shut down the domestic ivory market in the UK’. The petition currently has 75,683 signatures. The Government have recently responded as follows:

The Government is deeply concerned by the continued poaching of elephants for their ivory, which is why we are committed to maintaining the current global ban on any international trade in new ivory.We have been actively exploring options to implement the Government’s manifesto commitment to press for a total ban on ivory sales. On 21 September the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced a ban on sales of items containing ivory dated between 1947 and the present day, making UK rules on ivory sales among the world’s toughest. The Government will consult on the ban early next year as a first step in meeting the manifesto commitment. This will complement our existing approach of not permitting sales of raw ivory tusks of any age.Dr Thérèse Coffey, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs,attended the recent 17th Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) during September 2016. The UK was pleased that at the CITES Conference, Parties voted against a resumption of trading in modern day ivory, in line with recent domestic UK action. There was also a clear direction to close national ivory markets where these fuel poaching and illegal trade and decisive action to strengthen National Ivory Action Plans, which help combat ivory trafficking in key markets.[11]

[1] Backbench Business Committee, Representations: Backbench Debates, 22 November 2016

[2] Conservatives, The Conservative Party Manifesto 2015, p55

[3] Conservatives, The Conservative Party Manifesto 2010, p96

[4] HL Deb 1615W

[5] GOV.UK press release: UK ban on modern day ivory sales, 21 September 2016

[6] Environmental Investigation Agency, Unpacking CITES CoP17: The wins and the losses 5 October 2016

[7] HL Deb 2627W

[8] Hanoi Statement on Illegal Wildlife Trade 17 November 2016

[9], ‘Letter to Prime Minister’, Action for Elephants UK + 125 signatories, 24 September 2016

[10] ‘UK Government falls short in modern day ivory ban’, Tusk, 21 September 2016

[11] Petitions, UK Government and Parliament: Shut down the domestic ivory market in the UK [deadline 28 February 2017]

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