Banning ivory sales is unfair and unworkable

U.S. officials displayed confiscated illegal ivory on June 19 in Times Square before crushing more than a ton in an effort to halt elephant poaching and ivory trafficking.
U.S. officials displayed confiscated illegal ivory on June 19 in Times Square before crushing more than a ton in an effort to halt elephant poaching and ivory trafficking. The Associated Press

Despite its surface good intentions, the Assembly speaker’s bill to virtually end all sales of ivory objects in California is going to do more harm than good.

Californians who own any kind of ivory object will be severely punished by this piece of legislation for doing absolutely nothing wrong. All those pieces of art, accessories and specialty items containing ivory – legitimately acquired as a gift or bequest, or bought at a garage sale, auction or antique shop – will lose their dollar value. It won’t matter what type of ivory is involved or where it was originally acquired, Assembly Bill 96 declares that after next July, any object made substantially from or with ivory cannot be sold in the state.

Is Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins really intent on driving commerce out of California, creating a new black market, diminishing the financial assets of her constituents and increasing the number of state Fish and Wildlife agents required to enforce this new law?

AB 96 – which passed the Assembly and is set for a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee – will do all of that. It is not only counterproductive and unfair, it makes little sense.

Let’s start with basic economics. Ending trade in ivory in California will make it even scarcer. Scarcity with undiminished demand in East Asia will cause worldwide prices to rise, generating more profits for poachers. The danger to elephant herds in middle Africa will be even greater.

Moreover, cutting off supply before dealing with demand has proven a colossal public policy failure, shown by Prohibition and the war on drugs. So why would anybody think that stopping ivory sales in California will have any meaningful impact on ivory buying in China, Vietnam or the Philippines?

More significantly, the premise on which AB 96 is predicated is doubtful. Part of the rationale came from a survey of ivory objects on sale in California in 2014 sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which asked its researcher to count ivory objects that could “possibly” have been carved after 1977. There is an enormous gulf between an object possibly carved after 1977 – when ivory was first subject to international restrictions – and “probably” worked after that date. “Possibly” could conceivably include every ivory piece; counting only items that were “probably” carved after a given year takes judgment, experience and analysis.

Much is made of California being the second largest ivory market in the United States. The numbers, however, include both legal and illegal ivory. Moreover, since California has twice the population of New York, it is actually far behind in ivory trade. U.S. Customs and Immigration has only confiscated a tiny amount of ivory in recent years – less than 250 pounds in the most recent report – and nearly all in tourist souvenirs. In fact, very little high-value poached ivory is believed to have come into California in recent years.

Finally, consider another set of numbers. How many of the 96 elephants said to die each day are lost to natural causes – old age, disease and as a source of food? Even if every death were proved to be at the hands of poachers, where is the resulting ivory product? If the average tusk is just 10 pounds (most are much larger), the 35,000 elephants would produce 700,000 pounds of ivory. That’s enough for millions upon millions of ivory objects each year, but no one has seen anything like that number in any of the world’s markets. Without sales, there can be no profit, and without profit, poaching ends. In short, the 96 per day seems greatly exaggerated to scare up votes and donations, not to reflect the reality of African elephant herds today.

Godfrey Harris, a public policy consultant in Los Angeles, is managing director of the Ivory Education Institute.