How California shops evade ban on elephant ivory sales

Most ivory dealers in California rely on intentional mislabeling to cover what wildlife groups say is the illegal sale of recently poached African elephants.

REUTERS/Harvard Medical School/Glenn Williams/Handout
A Narwhal swims through ice during spring migration. The narwhal's mysterious spiral tusk works as a giant sensor to help it test water qualities and to smooch other narwhals, a U.S. researcher said. The whale's eight-foot (2.4-metre) long tusk has long mystified naturalists and hunters, and the explanation may be equally intriguing, Harvard School of Dental Medicine researcher Dr. Martin Nweeia said.

Ivory dealers in San Francisco's Chinatown stood in their shop doors besides store windows full of carved ivory tusks and trinkets this week, unfazed by President Barack Obama's announcement of proposed rules that the White House says go as far as the administration can go toward banning all U.S. trade of ivory from the world's endangered elephants.

"Wooly mammoth ivory," not elephant ivory, Chinatown store manager Michael Rasoyli said of the carved tusks in his store in San Francisco, which with Los Angeles makes up two of the country's top three hubs for ivory sales.

"Cow bone," store manager Virginia Lo said, in another Chinatown shop next door, of the half-dozen curved tusks up to 4 ½ -feet long for sale in her own shop.

A ruse, opponents of the global trade in elephant ivory countered, saying most ivory dealers in California rely on intentional mislabeling to cover what wildlife groups and some ivory experts say is the illegal sale of recently poached African elephants.

The Obama administration's proposed new rules wouldn't close what ivory opponents say are the mislabeling loopholes, but in California, a bill before state lawmakers would, advocates say.

In Chinatown on Monday, German tourist Heike Dietrich stopped cold at the sight of the tusks — carved into reliefs of elephants and other African wildlife — on display in Rasoyli's store windows.

"I can't believe it," Dietrich said, leaning in for a closer look. "It's forbidden. Everybody knows the elephants are endangered. They massacre them to get these?"

The new proposed federal regulations, announced by Obama on Saturday during his state visit to Kenya, would limit most interstate trade in elephant ivory to antiques that the seller can prove are at least a century old, and to items, such as gunstocks with ivory inlay, that include only a small percentage of ivory overall.

Surging demand for ivory among China's growing middle class has spurred poaching that has decimated elephant herds in Africa. Tanzania said last month that ivory hunters had killed 60 percent of that country's elephants in just five years. Mozambique reported a 48 percent decline in elephants in the same period.

After China, the United States is the world's second-largest consumer of ivory, as well as a key conduit for ivory sales internationally, according to wildlife groups.

Typically, poached elephant ivory coming into the United States is mixed with legal lookalikes — hippo, mammoth, or plastic ivory facsimiles — and labeled as mammoth, Kenya-based ivory researcher Daniel Stiles wrote in a 2014 for the National Resources Defense Council environmental group.

While thawing of Arctic permafrost is bringing increasing number of tusks of long-dead wooly mammoth on to global markets, Stiles estimated that up to 90 percent of ivory then on sale in Los Angles, and 80 percent of the ivory then on sale in San Francisco, was elephant ivory and illegal under state law.

Asked about the difficulty of telling purported ivory of the extinct wooly mammoth from illegally killed African elephants, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pointed Monday to a section of the agency's website that said it required a "trained scientist" to positively identify the species from which any carved ivory object originated.

New York, which wildlife officials and wildlife groups had identified as the country's biggest ivory market, banned the sale of most elephant ivory, mammoth tusks and rhinoceros horns last year.

In California, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego, has authored legislation this year that would ban sales of ivory-like material from creatures ranging from elephants and wooly mammoths to wart hogs and whales. Assembly Bill 96 passed the House and is currently before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The proposed California legislation "closes loopholes that have allowed the illegal sale of ivory to continue," Atkins said in an e-mail Monday. "By closing these gaps in existing law, we can help shut down the California market and save thousands of elephants and rhinos every year."

In Chinatown, store manager Yail Levi pulled from an office desk a document bearing what he said were the stamps and emblem of the U.S. wildlife service. He could send it with any ivory purchase to attest to its provenance from wooly mammoths, he said. "For the last 10 years, we sell only mammoth ivory," Levi said.

He declined to allow The Associated Press to photograph the document, however. Likewise, while the shop had import documents for the carved ivory pieces, he said, he could not show them.

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