Connecticut should pay its ‘moral debt’ to elephants

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Photo by Julie Larsen Maher/Wildlife Conservation Society

Elephant ivory seized and destroyed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In a session marked with consternation over budget challenges, legislators should do far less hand-wringing when supporting the bill to stop the bloody trade of poached ivory and rhino horn in Connecticut.

Indeed, the costs of taking no action on HB 6955 will reach far beyond Connecticut.  Elephants will continue to be slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands for their ivory, which is coveted for use in jewelry, figurines, and other objects falsely sold as “antiques.”

Ivory traffickers who smuggle past federal import prohibitions will find a startingly lucrative U.S. market for ivory products.  In fact, the U.S. is only second behind China in the demand for ivory.

A 2014 survey commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council of the Los Angeles and San Francisco ivory markets found that up to 90 percent of the ivory seen in Los Angeles and up to 80 percent of the ivory seen in San Francisco was likely illegal. In 2012, the US Fish and Wildlife Service seized more than $2 million worth of illegal ivory from New York City retailers. The price tag on ivory is as high as $1,800 per pound.

Of course, most people shopping for trinkets and jewelry would never knowingly purchase an object that came from an animal that was just brutally slaughtered, leaving a bloody mess and a crying orphaned elephant behind. Nor would these customers support an industry that allegedly funds terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab, which carried out an April 2015 attack on a Kenyan unversity killing 150 students.

The U.S. market for ivory flourishes because it is built on deception. The legal ivory market is facilitating a large parallel illegal market because it is very easy for traffickers to claim that their ivory is lawful.

They can create an aged appearance by applying a tint to the surface, or forge documents that claim a false history. A 2002 investigation of U.S. ivory markets by the Humane Society of the United States found ivory sellers providing fraudulent documents to investigators indicating that elephant ivory was mammoth ivory, that new ivory was old ivory, or that recently imported ivory was imported a long time ago. The layperson, and even many appraisers, are easily fooled.

As originally introduced, HB 6955 would have fixed the problem of antiques serving as cover for recently-poached ivory. Unfortunately, the bill was amended in committee to allow the sale of antique ivory objects comprised of 100 percent ivory. As such, the current version of the bill will do nothing to help reduce the elephant poaching crisis and will set a terrible precedent for other states that are trying to pass legislation curbing their ivory markets.

Inspired by the recently passed ivory law in New York State, amendment LCO 7261 would strike a compromise between elephant conservation and the antiques industry, by allowing the sale of antiques that contain only 20 percent or less ivory. In today’s market, most legitimate antiques with ivory contain just a very small percent of ivory (e.g., an antique chair with ivory inlay, or an antique chest of drawers with ivory knobs). This “20 percent” exemption would allow the vast majority of antique sales to continue, while thwarting efforts by traffickers to sell faked antiques made from 100 percent ivory. The bill also contains an exemption for musical instruments containing ivory that were made before 1975.

LCO 7261 is also supported by Connecticut supporters of the Humane Society of the United States, Natural Resources Defense Council, Humane Society International, Wildlife Conservation Society,  CT Chapter of the Sierra Club, Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo, and Audubon Connecticut.

Connecticut has a special responsibility to join elephant conservation efforts, since some of our own communities of Deep River and Ivoryton were built on the ivory industry. Marta Daniels, and antiques dealer from Chester, calls this our “moral debt” to elephants.

Museums and historical societies are generously exempted in this bill, as are estate holders who wish to pass family heirlooms to the next generation. We should never forget the devastation Connecticut once caused to African animals, people, and the environment to manufacture the “plastic of the 19th century.”

In passing HB 6955 amended with LCO 7261, Connecticut would strengthen a growing east coast movement against traffickers by allying ourselves with our neighboring states of New York and New Jersey, both of which have strong ivory laws.

We would also answer our nation’s call to halt the killing and take the profit out of this illegal trade with all the tools at our disposal. Connecticut cannot afford to neglect this opportunity to join the international movement to save elephants.

Amy Harrell is the president of Connecticut Votes for Animals.

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