WASHINGTON—Today the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International released a disturbing undercover investigation revealing the potentially deceptive sale of products made from elephant ivory by sellers at 20 stores in Florida.
The investigation, which took place in February 2023 in cities across the state including Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Tampa, Dania Beach, West Palm Beach and others documented more than 350 items suspected to be carved from elephant ivory and available for sale to the general public. Poachers source ivory by hacking the faces off of live elephants, whose populations are rapidly dwindling because of the global wildlife trafficking epidemic.
Under federal law, new ivory cannot be imported, exported or sold across state lines. Antique ivory can be sold with proper documentation proving that the item is an antique that is at least 100 years old. Without that documentation, ivory items for sale in Florida are potentially sourced from recently poached elephants. Federal law does not address the sale of ivory within a state; that is why state laws are needed to close the loophole that results in ivory being sold in local markets.
Only two vendors out of the 20 locations claimed to have the correct paperwork to sell ivory, and neither presented documentation during the potential sale. Many sellers who admitted that they could not determine the age of their ivory items nonetheless put those items out for sale.
Several salespeople advised the investigator to hide ivory pieces in checked bags at the airport. Another seller claimed that their store intentionally keeps their ivory stock hidden for select customers; the seller knows it is not legal to sell most ivory, but wants to recover some returns on their own prior purchases.
Kate MacFall, Florida state director for the Humane Society of the United States said, “This investigation demonstrates the urgent need for a state law to ensure that Florida doesn’t provide local markets for the sale of animal products that result from international poaching and trafficking. Floridians shouldn’t be unwittingly buying these products, and local stores shouldn’t be knowingly or unknowingly selling them. Thirteen states and Washington, D.C., have passed similar measures, and it’s critical that Florida do its utmost to reduce the demand for ivory, especially considering that the state is home to significant ports from which illegal ivory can enter.”
There is indeed a thriving ivory market across Florida, as 13 of the 20 cities visited during the investigation displayed ivory for sale in their shops. The investigator, who is a wildlife biologist, observed that the tags on most ivory items for sale did not identify the source material. When asked about the items and whether they were ivory, many salespeople claimed to not fully understand the laws regulating the sale of ivory, or to know much about the ivory items they were selling. Others outwardly admitted selling most ivory was illegal while putting ivory items into the hands of the investigator to consider for purchase.
Kathryn Kullberg, director of marine and wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said: “The intrastate sale of ivory takes advantage of a significant loophole in federal law. New, illicit ivory that was hacked off the faces of endangered elephants is entering state markets, and it is imperative that states like Florida pass legislation to close this loophole. A trinket is not worth extinction.”
The investigation illustrates that Florida sellers and consumers could be knowingly and unknowingly contributing to the illegal ivory trade as potentially illicit ivory is being sold under the guise of legal ivory. Although many sellers are familar with federal regulations, others are unaware that what they are selling may be illegal ivory given the patchwork of state laws governing its sale. Those seeking to sell illegal ivory take advantage of that gap in state law, putting both honest antique sellers and Florida consumers at risk of purchasing illegal ivory from recently poached elephants. Florida urgently needs a statewide law to combat the ivory trade.
- Thirteen states and Washington, D.C. have passed laws to prohibit the trade of parts and products sourced from imperiled species within their borders.
- In 2016, the U.S. implemented a near-total ban on commercial trade in African elephant ivory. A 2017 executive order strengthened law enforcement efforts to combat transnational criminal organizations, such as those involved in illegal smuggling and trafficking of wildlife.
- Federal laws and regulations primarily restrict the import, export or interstate trade of products from endangered and threatened species, but they do not regulate intrastate sales. Thus, wildlife products continue to be illegally imported and enter the domestic market. State and local laws are needed to complement existing federal laws and regulations.
- Many species are directly threatened because of the illegal wildlife trade—fueled by the demand for their parts and products in the U.S. Each year, as many as 15,000 elephants are killed in Africa in gruesome ways to supply the demand for their ivory.
- A recent report found the population of savanna elephants has declined by 60%, and forest elephants by more than 86%, since the 1970s, placing them a step or two away from extinction.
- Madeline Bove