Elephants need California’s help. As many as 35,000 a year are slaughtered in Africa due to the global ivory trade. That’s 96 elephants a day, or one every 15 minutes.
Despite a 1989 ban on the international commercial ivory trade, the killing of elephants has escalated in the past decade, driven largely by increased demand for ivory in Asia – where consumer incomes are growing – as well as in Europe and the United States.
The Golden State is the nation’s second largest market for illicit ivory. To reduce California’s contribution to the elephant poaching crisis, a bill now making its way through the state Legislature, aptly named Assembly Bill 96, would ban ivory sales here.
The Assembly overwhelmingly passed the measure last month on a 62-14 vote. The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to hear it on Monday. We commend California legislators for their work thus far, but we must build on this momentum to see the bill signed into law.
Despite what some ivory industry supporters have suggested, the recent devastating elephant losses are not exaggerated to scare up votes and donations. They reflect the shocking reality in Africa, as documented by scientists working in the field and in papers published by respected peer-reviewed journals.
California lawmakers enacted a ban on the trade in elephant parts, including ivory, in the 1970s. However, a loophole permitted any ivory obtained before 1977 to be sold as an “antique.” This paved the way for ivory from newly poached elephants to be laundered as old since it is very difficult to tell the difference.
Banning the sale of ivory in California is especially important because Los Angeles and San Francisco are two of the nation’s largest markets. A study of 107 California vendors in 2014 showed that at least half of the ivory on sale in those cities violated federal law, and as much 80 percent violated state law.
The only way to end such sales is to close all commercial ivory trade. AB 96 ends the exemption for selling ivory imported before 1977 and imposes penalties for ivory sales. However, the bill provides exemptions for musical instruments made of less than 20 percent ivory or rhino horn if the owner or seller can document the item was manufactured before 1977.
Some argue that permitting a legal ivory trade would allow for more effective control, noting that Prohibition and the war on drugs drove demand underground, benefiting criminals in the process. But there are fundamental differences between the trade in drugs and wildlife.
Because ivory, rhino horn and other wildlife parts are not addictive, campaigns to reduce demand can more easily succeed. There are many fewer markets for wildlife products, so they can be more readily controlled. Further, the supply of ivory, rhino horn and other wildlife products is limited.
In 2013, the Obama administration created the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, instructing government agencies to take action to end this crisis. State bans like those passed already in New York and New Jersey complement and bolster federal enforcement efforts by restricting intrastate trade.
With AB 96, Californians have the chance to take real action to save elephants from extinction and continue to be leaders in our country in supporting wildlife and wild places.
John Calvelli is executive vice president for public affairs at the Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Bronx Zoo, and director of the 96 Elephants campaign. Kyle Burks is director and CEO of the Sacramento Zoo.