Ivory dealers could continue to sell elephant tusks after a new ban by disguising their products as walrus or narwhal derivatives, campaigners have warned.
As of Monday, the trade in elephant teeth and tusks has been illegal in the UK, punishable by fines of up to £250,000 or five years in prison under the Ivory Act. Musical instruments from before 1975 and ancient objects of “exceptional importance” are exempt from the law, as well as ivory from species other than elephants.
But Born Free Foundation, a wildlife charity, is calling for the ban to be extended to ivory from other species, saying unscrupulous sellers could otherwise pass off elephant products as derivatives of unprotected mammals.
Research by the campaign group found £1.1million worth of ivory-containing products offered for sale on three UK online marketplaces in a single month at the end of 2021. In two-thirds of the 1,832 listings of ivory products, it was impossible to identify the species because of the limited number and quality of images provided, the researchers said.
Among the objects containing ivory where the species could be identified, the majority came from elephants (491 out of 606), with walruses (48), sperm whales (26), hippos (15), warthogs (12), mammoths (eight) and narwhals (six) were also featured.
Will Travers OBE, co-founder and executive chairman of Born Free, said: “The take-home message from our report is that all trade in ivory – regardless of species – must end. Just a few weeks ago, wildlife law enforcement officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo intercepted 2,000 kg of ivory, which amounts to around 150 dead elephants.
“Through e-commerce, could this have been aimed – at least in part – at the UK market?”
Dr Mark Jones, Policy Officer of Born Free, said: “The government must now ensure that the system it has put in place to prevent the trade in most elephant ivory is sufficiently robust to ensure that only items that genuinely meet the exemption criteria can be marketed. Our research demonstrates the extent of the online ivory trade in the UK.
Jones said he fears law enforcement will find themselves stretched too thin to police the vast online market, allowing night dealers to pass off illegal elephant ivory as something else.
The Born Free report, titled Are Ivory Sellers Lying Through Their Teeth?, uncovered 331 cases in a single month of sellers selling ivory on eBay UK – despite ivory trading being banned on the platform in 2009 .
Most of the ivory products listed on the website were more or less subtly disguised, with an advertisement saying the item was “cold to the touch”, a recognized code phrase, and another saying the material was from “d ‘an animal with a trunk’.
Typically, sellers list products as ‘ivory’ or ‘faux ivory’ on eBay UK, while admitting they actually contained ivory in adverts for the same item appearing on specialist auction websites.
There were 414 individual sellers of ivory products across the UK and the Channel Islands identified during the month-long study period, selling products including walking sticks, ornaments, jewelery and a hair brush.
In addition to eBay, Born Free found items for sale on Barnebys (a popular search engine for auctioneers and antiques) and Antiques Atlas (a specialist online marketplace).
An eBay spokesperson said: “eBay is a founding member of the Coalition to End Online Wildlife Trafficking. We have worked to combat the illegal trade in elephant ivory for many years and work alongside WWF and IFAW to continually update our policies and processes. We have dedicated global teams to enforce our policies, and over a recent two-year period, we blocked or removed over 265,000 ads prohibited under our Animal Products Policy.
Antiques Atlas has since removed the ad in question. Iain Smith of Antiques Atlas said: “The ivory category and its associated stock has now been removed. We are not a large auction site with large volumes of stock sold weekly. We have had one article uploaded to this category within the last six months.
“Over the past two years we have seen that most dealers have reduced their stock of ivory and moved away from it…I don’t think I have come across a single antique dealer who was not against the illegal trade of ivory and the threat it poses to this endangered species.Smith said he would also support a complete ban on the overseas sale of ivory from the UK.
The government requested evidence on the 2019 non-elephant ivory trade ban. Species considered for protection included hippos, killer whales, narwhals, sperm whales, walruses, common warthogs, desert warthogs and mammoths.
A number of respondents to the consultation opposed extending the ivory ban to species other than elephants, with one saying it would have a hugely detrimental effect on musicians who rely on these sources for the manufacture and repair of instruments.
Another respondent argued that banning trade in ivory of these species would harm “small businesses, private collectors, museums, researchers and students of everything from antiques to antique ladies’ dresses, without preserving endangered animals.
Peter Goldsmith, Minister for Animal Welfare, said: “The coming into force of the world-leading Ivory Law represents a historic moment in ensuring the survival of elephants around the world for future generations. Thousands of elephants are needlessly and cruelly targeted each year for their ivory for financial gain. As one of the toughest bans of its kind, we send a clear message that the trade in elephant ivory is totally unacceptable.