In response to what it is calling an "alarming rise" in poaching, the United States is tightening its regulations on ivory, implementing what will be an almost complete ban on the commercial trade. The regulations aim to help reduce poaching of the African elephant, an endangered species.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday they had finalized a new rule banning interstate sales, allowing only pre-existing manufactured items with less than 200 grams of ivory that meet other criteria, or items older than 100 years old. It also restricts hunters' trophy imports to two a year.
Jeff Flocken, the North American regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, tells The Christian Science Monitor ivory is commonly sold online, in storefronts and auctions in the the US, one of the top markets for ivory.
"Up until now, ivory markets in the US have pretty much had free run. It was very hard to prosecute people for selling ivory because the exceptions and loopholes were so large," he says. "The rule that came out and was finalized yesterday really takes a hard look at what is legal and what isn't, and as the US government said, it's a near ban."
More than 24,000 elephants were killed in 2015, according to wildlife nonprofit Born Free. The estimated poaching rate remains higher than the normal growth rate of elephant populations, so it is likely the elephant population continued its overall decline in 2015, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. However, poaching levels have been falling since 2011, which Mr. Flocken says is likely because of better enforcement and a large global effort to reduce demand and increase awareness.
Elly Pepper, a wildlife advocate for the National Resource Defense Council, tells the Monitor that the ban, combined with the administration's previous actions and state bans passed in the top three US ivory markets (New York, California, and Hawaii), is a step toward eliminating the US ivory market altogether.
"Historically, we've allowed a thriving ivory market in the US," she says. Permitting a legal trade in antique ivory, which can be difficult to distinguish from newer products, has "allowed a parallel illegal market."
"These regulations, and all the actions the administration has taken, really go a long way towards eliminating that market," she says.
An initial ban on the international ivory trade, enacted in 1989, helped lower poaching rates, but sales – and therefore hunting – have been on the rise since 2000 because of demand in China, Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam, as The Guardian reported.
However, conservationists in China have been aggressively campaigning in China since 2012, as the Monitor reported. They have seen a 50 percent increase in awareness that ivory comes from poaching and not from natural causes, and the value of illegal ivory decreased by half between 2014 and 2015.
In May 2015, China said it planned on phasing out the country's domestic ivory trade, and in September 2015, President Obama and China President Xi Jinping announced both countries would work together to enact "nearly complete bans" on the import and export of ivory, as National Geographic reported.
Ms. Pepper said China has taken some steps in the right direction, such as originally one-year bans on ivory hunting trophies and carving imports that have now been expanded to three years.
"They have yet to enact a complete ban, but they have taken some big steps," she said. "I'm very optimistic that this action will prod China to implement the ban it promised last year."
Thursday's announcement could pressure China to pass a similar nearly complete ban. Ms. Pepper said the timing of the announcement "couldn't be more perfect," as she expects wildlife trafficking to be one of the main topics discussed at next week's 2016 US China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
"China has made clear they are watching very closely what the US has been doing on ivory, and whether we're taking our role in the international market seriously," Mr. Flocken says. "The Obama administration has shown they are by making these changes, and hopefully China will also follow suit."
Mr. Flocken said the African elephant is in "tremendous" threat of extinction if the global demand for ivory does not decrease.
"We have to figure out how to stop the demand in Asia, in the US, in Europe, everywhere," he said. "That will be, ultimately, what can save elephants. With the US, we know we have markets and we know that we influence other markets around the world. So by stopping our own demand, you can only benefit elephants."