In an effort to combat the ongoing environmental crisis of nature loss, the UK government has taken a crucial step towards protecting endangered species by strengthening legal measures. The focus is now on halting the poaching and trafficking of wildlife, driven predominantly by the demand for ivory.
Recognizing the urgent need for action, the UK government has expanded the legal protections to encompass five additional species. The extended provisions of the Ivory Act 2018 will now prohibit the trading of ivory derived from hippos, walruses, narwhals, killer whales, and sperm whales. Since its enactment last year, the Ivory Act has gained international recognition as “one of the toughest bans of its kind worldwide.”
Initially designed to address the trafficking of elephant tusks, which are sought after for their use in traditional medicine, trophies, and ornaments, the Ivory Act strictly prohibits the selling, renting, importing, or exporting of elephant ivory within the UK. Violators of the law may face fines of up to £250,000, and in severe cases, even imprisonment.
While the newly protected species constitute a smaller portion of the ivory trafficking trade compared to elephants, these animals are still hunted for their valuable ivory. A recent investigation examined 621 online listings of ivory in the UK and found that approximately one-third of the listings originated from non-elephant species. Additionally, a separate report highlighted the clear demand for hippo ivory, with an estimated 957kg of hippo ivory seized globally between 2009 and 2018.
The expanded legal protection for trading in these species is expected to act as a deterrent for ivory traffickers. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that the effectiveness of the Ivory Act’s extended provisions may face several barriers.
One significant challenge lies in the global disparity of wildlife laws. While some countries have prohibited the trade in ivory, many others merely regulate it, allowing existing markets to persist. Ten African nations attempted to increase protections for hippos in 2022, but their proposal was rejected, leaving legal trade in hippo ivory to continue in those countries.
This global inconsistency in wildlife trade laws facilitates the circulation of illegally obtained ivory, often laundered alongside legitimate ivory trade. For instance, Hong Kong reports a higher volume of hippo ivory imports from Uganda than the volume declared by Uganda for export. Between 1995 and 2013, approximately 14,000kg of hippo teeth were unaccounted for between Uganda and Hong Kong, indicating that the actual trade levels far exceed agreed quotas.
The impact of an extended ban on ivory trafficking is likely to remain limited without a global consensus on wildlife laws. Despite international law frameworks, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the International Whaling Commission’s explicit prohibition of commercial whaling activities, the implementation and enforcement of these agreements vary across countries. Mexico, for example, recently faced sanctions from CITES for failing to adequately protect the endangered species of porpoise known as the vaquita marina.
Another obstacle to effective enforcement is the prioritization of wildlife crimes. Research indicates that wildlife crime enforcement relies heavily on the dedication, enthusiasm, and specialist knowledge of individual officers. Limited resources and the absence of wildlife crime training within mainstream policing further undermine efforts to combat wildlife crimes consistently. Although the UK has a dedicated National Police Wildlife Crime Unit, training in wildlife crime is not compulsory for police officers, resulting in inconsistent prosecution and lenient fines and sentencing.
The involvement of organized criminal networks exacerbates the challenges faced in combatting illegal ivory trade. These networks employ sophisticated smuggling techniques, engage in bribery and corruption, and exploit porous borders. Consequently, many incidents of illegal ivory trade go unreported and undiscovered, hindering efforts to gather
accurate data on the scale of the ivory trade and the species involved. This lack of understanding makes it difficult to allocate sufficient resources for enforcement.
Furthermore, accurately identifying ivory and ivory products poses a significant hurdle for UK authorities enforcing the strengthened ban. Traffickers frequently employ deceptive tactics, such as disguising elephant ivory as other materials, particularly on online marketplaces. Instances have been documented where ivory has been misrepresented as materials from different species, like cow bone, on e-commerce platforms. This practice complicates efforts to distinguish illicit ivory trade from legitimate transactions.
Additionally, the situation is further complicated by existing ivory markets that are not covered by the extended Ivory Act. For example, certain markets involving warthogs remain unprotected, providing opportunities for traffickers to exploit these gaps in legislation by concealing illegal ivory among legal ivory trade.
While any law aimed at protecting threatened wildlife is commendable, a ban alone will not suffice in preventing illegal activity. It is imperative to establish a well-funded enforcement regime if we are to effectively safeguard our natural world. Adequate resources, training, and international collaboration are essential to tackle the multifaceted challenges posed by wildlife trafficking and ivory trade.
The UK government’s decision to extend legal protections to five additional species targeted by the illegal ivory trade demonstrates a commitment to combatting wildlife trafficking. However, it is crucial to recognize that addressing this complex issue requires a comprehensive and coordinated approach on a global scale. Only through concerted efforts, including the establishment of stringent wildlife trade laws, enhanced enforcement mechanisms, and international cooperation, can we hope to protect our precious wildlife and preserve the biodiversity of our planet for future generations.
As the urgency to address the environmental crises facing our planet continues to grow, it is our collective responsibility to prioritize the protection of nature and ensure a sustainable coexistence with the diverse species that inhabit it.