A law designed to protect elephants, passed with popular support and cross-party Parliamentary backing in 2018, could be struck off the statute books because of resistance from the antiques trade.
The UK Ivory Act – which introduces tough regulations on the buying and selling of ivory from, to and within the UK – received Royal Assent in December 2018 but will now be subject to Judicial Review at the High Court on Wednesday, October 16, 2019.
“To lose this law before it has even taken effect would be a tragedy for Africa’s elephants,” said John Stephenson, CEO of Stop Ivory. “The UK is one of the world’s leading exporters of antique ivory and sends more to China and Hong Kong than any other country.
“Any legal trade in ivory provides cover for the illegal trade because it is difficult to distinguish between antique and newly carved ivory. Moreover, it fuels a continued demand for ivory by perpetuating its perceived value in the eyes of consumers and making it a socially acceptable commodity.”
The antiques lobby group, a company of antiques dealers and collectors called the Friends of Antique Cultural Treasures Ltd (FACT), argues that the Ivory Act is incompatible with EU law, which allows trade in pre-1947 “antique” ivory. The group also claims the act infringes antiques dealers’ human rights by not letting them buy or sell ivory.
However, the European Commission is currently considering new restrictions on ivory trade across Europe which are based in part on the UK Ivory Act and even uses similar language. Other countries, such as Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, have introduced, or are in the process of introducing, similar legislation also based on the Act.
Mary Rice, Executive Director of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which has campaigned against the ivory trade for decades, said: “The UK Ivory Act has been welcomed globally as an important step in stifling a demand for ivory which threatens elephants in the wild. So, we’re extremely concerned about attempts by British antiques dealers to have the UK ban quashed.”
While the antiques trade claims the UK Ivory Act will result in “substantial economic damage” to the industry, ivory accounts for less than one per cent of annual sales in many UK auction houses.
The Act does not prevent individuals from owning ivory, from passing items on as family heirlooms or donating it to museums and includes several carefully crafted exemptions.
The UK Ivory Act also has the support of many African countries with significant elephant populations, which are calling for stricter controls on the sale of ivory abroad as they struggle to control poaching at home.
Thirteen African governments belonging to the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI) signed a statement hailing the passing of the Act in 2018: “We believe the UK’s new law will support and encourage enforcement efforts and initiatives to reduce ivory trafficking in Africa, and around the world.”
Approximately 55 African elephants are poached every day, described by scientists as an unsustainable rate of loss.
According to a 2017 survey, 85 per cent of the British public are in favour of the UK Ivory Act.
A decision from the High Court is expected before the end of the year.