Why Hawaii’s new ivory trafficking bill could be a big deal

The Aloha State is the latest in the United States to introduce a bill banning ivory trafficking. What it could mean for the American ivory trade as a whole.

Toby Melville/Reuters/File
A young elephant walks with adult elephants on a road near Pretoria, in South Africa August 8, 2014. In February 2015, Hawaii introduced a bill that would prohibit all commercial ivory trade in the state, making it the latest to support the growing domestic ivory ban.

Good news for conservationists: Hawaii has introduced a new bill that would ban the trafficking of rhino horn and ivory in the state.

If passed, the proposed bill – named SB 674 after the estimated number of elephants killed weekly for their tusks, according to reports – would prohibit selling, trading, possessing with intent to sell, or importing with intent to sell elephant ivory or rhinoceros horn within the state.

“[T]he legislature finds that the most effective way to prevent the illegal trafficking of animal ivory and rhinoceros horn is to eliminate the markets for and profits of wildlife traffickers,” according to the 10-page proposal.

Despite Hawaii’s relatively small population, the state is the third largest market for elephant ivory in the US, which itself is the second-largest ivory consumer in the world, according to a study by UK-based conservation group Care for the Wild. Hawaii’s new bill is the latest in a series of efforts to crack down on the ivory trade at both the state and federal levels.

Last year, the Obama administration announced a new National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking that aims to strengthen the United States' role in addressing illegal wildlife trading. At the same time, the White House declared a ban on the commercial trade of elephant ivory "except in a very limited number of circumstances," according to a fact sheet released by the Press Secretary's office.

“We are seeing record high demand for wildlife products that is having a devastating impact, with species like elephants and rhinos facing the risk of significant decline or even extinction,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement.

“A commercial ban is a critical element in the President’s strategy to stop illegal wildlife trafficking and to shut down criminal markets that encourage poaching,” Ms. Jewell added.

New York and New Jersey passed their own anti-ivory trafficking bills in 2014. California, Washington state, Iowa, and Connecticut introduced similar legislation in January, putting momentum on the side of conservationists.

But critics argue that a full domestic ban would hurt small businesses and render ivory items worthless on legal markets without affecting demand in places where people would pay to poach elephants for their tusks.

“Instead of changing strategy and encouraging legal ivory trade to undermine the true criminals, governments and NGOs are doubling down in the US on broken strategies by banning domestic sales of ivory brought to the United States at least 25 years ago,” according to the Elephant Protection Association, a nonprofit group that supports a legal ivory trade in the US. 

The group is one of a number advocating for "strategies that will actually save elephants" without affecting small businesses that depend on items that contain ivory, such as musical instruments, pistols, knives and other tools, and jewelry.

Though poaching levels in Africa dropped overall in 2013, the number of African elephants killed that year still numbered more than 20,000, according to a 2014 report by the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or CITES. Another study, also published last year, estimated that in the span of three years, more than 100,000 African elephants were killed for their ivory.

Animal advocates and conservationists say that efforts to ban selling and trading ivory at the domestic level is an important step to reducing poaching and saving endangered species.

“Legislation banning the trade in these products will reduce the demand, which in turn will reduce the killing,” according to the animal advocacy nonprofit Born Free USA.

The Hawaii House of Representatives heard the new bill Monday and the Senate is set to hear it Thursday.

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