Editorial: Assembly bill on ivory sales is worth approving

Customs officers walk next to confiscated smuggled African elephant tusks during a news conference at the Port Authority of Thailand in Bangkok on April 20.

Customs officers walk next to confiscated smuggled African elephant tusks during a news conference at the Port Authority of Thailand in Bangkok on April 20.

(Rungroj Yongrit / EPA)

In Africa, an elephant is killed every 15 minutes by poachers. That’s 96 illegal killings a day. At that rate, the African elephant could be extinct in 10 years, conservationists say.

Poachers, armed with guns and, on occasion, rocket-propelled grenades, invade protected parks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Cameroon, among other countries, killing elephants (and sometimes park rangers along the way), hacking off the elephants’ tusks and leaving their bloody carcasses behind. What drives the slaughter of the world’s largest land mammal is the trade in those ivory tusks, which has been outlawed by international treaty since 1990 and by numerous laws and regulations.

Still, the black market thrives, a billion-dollar global industry that bankrolls terrorists, crime syndicates and nefarious merchants supplying consumers with ivory carvings, trinkets, jewelry and other objects. Many steps have been taken in Africa to end the illicit trade, but most experts now say that choking off demand in foreign markets is the most effective tool left.


China is, by far, the largest market for illegal ivory, according to conservationists, but the United States is also one of the top five.

Federal law bans all importation of African ivory for commerce, and California law bans the sale of items here made of ivory imported on or after June 1, 1977 (the year that African elephants were first listed by international treaty as being threatened with possible extinction). But it is extremely difficult to tell new, illegally obtained ivory from older ivory taken lawfully before the practice was banned. Illegally obtained ivory can be stained to make it look antique. A recent investigation commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that as much as 90% of ivory for sale in stores in Los Angeles was actually illegal. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, criminal investigations and antismuggling efforts have shown clearly that the legal ivory trade can serve as a cover for illegal trade.

AB 96, introduced by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), would tighten the rules by barring the sale of almost all ivory in California. (The bill would also ban the importation and sale of endangered rhinoceros horn.) It passed the Assembly last week with bipartisan support. The Senate should pass it too, and the governor should sign it into law.

New York and New Jersey have passed similar laws. And the U.S. government is in the process of strengthening its laws as well. Although the U.S. currently allows interstate commerce in ivory that can be shown to have been brought into this country prior to 1990, the Fish and Wildlife Service will be proposing new rules in a matter of weeks that will prohibit such sales.

There are exemptions in AB 96 for the sale of musical instruments that have proper documentation showing that they were not manufactured after 1975 and for antique objects that are less than 5% ivory. And scientific and educational institutions will also be allowed to buy and sell ivory under certain restrictions. The law doesn’t prohibit the possession of legally obtained ivory — nor does it stop owners from giving it away or bequeathing it to their heirs. If it passes, the bill will not go into effect until July 2016. So anyone who wants to sell something will have more than six months to do so.

It’s not likely that the courts will see this law as a violation of the Takings Clause under the 5th Amendment of the Constitution. When California outlawed shark fins, a group sued, arguing that the government had taken away the value of traders’ shark fins. The courts ruled otherwise, stating that the government was not in violation of the Constitution when it imposed a complete ban on a product determined to be harmful to the species.

As the decimation of the African elephant continues, fueled by the illegal ivory trade, this law is not only smart, but necessary.

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