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A closer look at the UK ivory trade ban

30th April 2018

African elephants

From deer poaching and hare coursing to the trade of endangered species, wildlife crime in the UK is much more prevalent than many would like to believe. Despite crucial pieces of legislation, such as the 2004 Hunting Act and the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, many wildlife crimes are still prevalent, and many go undetected.

The UK has a vital role in ensuring the protection of wildlife both on its shores and internationally. The government’s recent announcement to crack down on ivory trade has been welcomed by charities across the globe. In this article, we’ll look at the history of ivory trade in the UK, and how the ban is expected to impact the lives of African elephants.

UK ban on ivory trade


In early April 2018 the British government announced new restrictions on ivory trade. The proposed ban – billed as one of the toughest in the world – is reflective of the UK’s commitment to saving Africa’s elephants.

Founded in 1969, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), works to protect animals and their habitats. The global non-profit organisation has offices in 15 countries and projects running in more than 40, which allows them to rescue, rehabilitate and release animals into secure landscapes across the world. The team at IFAW have worked tirelessly to protect African elephants from the horrific ivory trade. To find out more about the UK’s involvement in ivory trade, we spoke to David Cowdrey, Head of Policy and Campaigns at IFAW:

“The UK has had a colonial past and it is estimated that more than one million elephants have been killed in the last 100 years. Many people from the UK working in or visiting Africa or India would bring back ivory souvenirs or trophies from hunting safaris and ivory was being brought back to the UK until 1979, when the ban on international sales first came into effect.

“We also allowed the trade of antique ivory items to continue, extolling the artistic qualities and high values which in turn helped conceal illegal activity. It was only recently, in the last five years, that the UK banned the sale of antique unworked ivory or tusks, which were being sold to countries in South East Asia. Recent reports show that antique ivory items are still being advertised and purchased legally and sometimes these worked items of solid ivory, which are carved, are being sold by weight and we believe that they are often reworked after purchasing in other countries.

“IFAW was one of the leading organisations lobbying for an ivory ban in the UK and working closely to understand the markets and drivers around the trade. We worked with fellow conservation organisations, fine art dealers, museums, law enforcement officers and musicians to make sure we fully understood the issues and could produce strong recommendations for a measured and effective ban that would make sure the UK would not contribute further to the illegal trade and introduce one of the toughest ivory bans in the world.”

“A positive and vital step for elephants”

Ivory trade ban

The government’s announcement in April 2018 to tighten laws surrounding ivory trade have been welcomed by wildlife organisations, including IFAW, which hailed it a “positive and vital step for elephants”. David Cowdrey said: “The announcement followed a public consultation, which closed in January, and thousands of IFAW supporters responded to it, in fact more than 70,000 people in total made their feelings known to the government.

“The proposed ivory ban will cover items of all ages, not only those produced after a certain date, and also made sure some tough new penalties will be built into the legislation. The government also confirmed that in line with the approach taken by other countries, including the United States and China, there will be certain narrowly-defined and carefully-targeted exemptions for items which do not contribute to the poaching of elephants.

“The new exemptions for the ivory ban will include:

  • Items with only a small amount of ivory in them. Such items must be comprised of less than 10% ivory by volume and have been made prior to 1947.
  • Musical instruments. These must have an ivory content of less than 20% and have been made prior to 1975.
  • Rarest and most important items of their type. Such items must be at least 100 years old and their rarity and importance will be assessed by specialist institutions such as the UK’s most prestigious museums before exemption permits are issued.
  • In addition, there will be a specific exemption for portrait miniatures painted on thin slivers of ivory and which are at least 100 years old.
  • Museums – Commercial activities to, and between, museums which are accredited by Arts Council England, the Welsh Government, Museums and Galleries Scotland or the Northern Ireland Museums Council in the UK, or the International Council of Museums for museums outside the UK.”

“This ban will send a clear and unequivocal message that ivory trade is over”

IFAW has been lobbying the government for a pragmatic ban to make a difference to the current poaching crisis, and, according to David, the organisation feels that the government has listened to its concerns and produced a “strong piece of legislation”. David added: “This announcement must be followed by swift parliamentary action to get the legislation on the statute books by October 2018 in time for the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade.

“The announcement shows the government is serious in introducing one of the toughest ivory bans in the world. This ban will send a clear and unequivocal message that ivory trade is over and rightly being consigned to the history books. Ivory should never again be seen as a commodity for financial gain or a status symbol; it should only be valued on a wild elephant.”

Reporting wildlife crime

If you are aware of any form of wildlife crime taking place, you should report it to the National Wildlife Crime Unit immediately. Every police force has a Wildlife Crime Officer responsible for tackling illegal wildlife crimes, including trade. The International Fund for Animal Welfare said: “If you see items for sale which you think are illegal please do not buy them, as buying or selling illegal wildlife items is an offence under the Control of Trade in Endangered Species regulations.”

If environmental or wildlife law interests you, keep an eye out for our jobs for lawyers which may present an opportunity. There are many ways in which you can help to protect the planet as a legal professional.