Ivory from recently slaughtered elephants is being illegally sold across Europe, fuelling the extinction crisis, a study has found.
The findings are at the centre of a new campaign calling on European officials to close a loophole in the law to help prevent the animals from being wiped out by poachers.
In April, the UK joined China and Hong Kong in this year banning sales of domestic ivory regardless of age. Until then, trading in antique – pre-1947 – items had been allowed, which conservationists argued was a cover for more modern pieces to be brought onto the market.
But until now the European Commission has said there is no evidence of illegal ivory being sold in Europe.
For the new study, undercover investigators bought more than 100 items in 10 EU countries and sent them to Oxford University's carbon-testing unit to determine their age.
Almost three in four (74.3 per cent) were found to date from after 1947, making their sale illegal without government-issued certificates.
One in five items (19.3 per cent) came from elephants killed after the worldwide ban in 1989.
Avaaz, a “global citizens” and petitions movement, said the findings provided concrete evidence that Europe’s trade in legal ivory – items from before 1947 - is creating a vehicle for trade in illegal ivory, encouraging elephant poaching.
Under EU rules, worked ivory dating from before 1947 can be freely traded, a loophole exploited by those in the illegal trade.
Items from after 1947 but before 1990 can only be sold with a government certificate, and all sales of post-1990 ivory are banned.
The problem that dogs wildlife campaigners is that ivory from elephants still being poached now is being passed off as antique, as it is impossible to distinguish the two for certain from a visual inspection alone.
The campaigners are today mounting a display of the ivory they tested at the European Commission’s Brussels headquarters, to put pressure on officials, where they will lobby environment commissioner Karmenu Vella.
The EU Commission is considering its next step following a public consultation that attracted nearly 90,000 responses calling for tighter restrictions.
Avaaz is calling for a ban on all ivory trade in Europe, an end to ivory exports from Europe and an end to the trade in raw ivory. It says the UK’s new restrictions should act as a model.
Bert Wander, campaign director at the group, said: “This bombshell evidence proves beyond doubt that illegal ivory is being sold across Europe. It must spark the end of this bloody trade. Every day the sale of these trinkets continues is a day closer to wiping out majestic elephants for ever.”
Mr Wander told The Independent: “It’s hard enough dealing with poachers, illegal mafias and corruption, yet some of the most advanced democracies on the planet need to be pushed into making a basic change in the law. Europe really needs to play its part in ending this terrible trade.”
Estimates of the number of African elephants killed range from 96 a day – about one every 15 minutes – to 55 a day, or at least 30,000 each year.
Savannah elephant numbers have collapsed by a third in the past decade. Without action, elephants could be extinct in the wild within decades, conservationists warn.
The European Parliament wants a ban on trade within the continent and exports. And more than a million people have signed a petition calling on the EU to close down its ivory trade, including three African presidents and representatives from 29 other African countries.
Avaaz's investigators bought 109 ivory items over four months for their study from Britain, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.
The items, such as figurines, ashtrays and ornaments, were bought from antique shops, market stalls and online, to provide a snapshot of ivory being traded in Europe as if it were antique and therefore legal – but without certificates.
Mr Wander said: “It was shockingly easy to find. In nine out of 10 places it was sold as antique but it wasn’t clear whether it was fake antique.”
He said Europe could no longer deny there was evidence of it on the continent.
Levels of awareness that elephants are killed for ivory were lower in Asia than in Africa and the West, he said, with some buyers believing it was taken without the animals being killed.
Maria Mossman, founder of Action for Elephants UK, said: "These findings prove Europe is heavily contributing to the illegal ivory trade, so the EU must act to implement a full ban without delay.
"It was agreed at CITES CoP17 that all parties whose legal domestic market for ivory, if proved to be contributing to poaching, should work to close them down urgently."
Mr Wander said the 32 African governments backing the campaign were saying “We can’t protect our elephants while there is legal trade”. “There’s huge momentum in the world to end this yet Europe is behind the curve,” he added.
“If even one elephant is poached it’s a tragedy. They are amazingly social animals – the most experienced will lead them to a watering hole and passes on that knowledge yet often those are the ones targeted for ivory. It changes the whole dynamic.
“Everything needs to be done or else we will lose elephants – the science is very clear. Our children will never see them unless we act.
“I’ve yet to speak to anyone who wants to see elephants become extinct.
A European Commission spokesman told The Independent: "Addressing elephant poaching and ivory trafficking is a cornerstone of the EU action plan against wildlife trafficking, and last year alone the commission introduced strengthened measures to fight poaching and to end trade in raw ivory.
"Addressing ivory trafficking should be a priority for all enforcement agencies in member states (including Europol), which have conducted unprecedented investigations against these criminal activities."
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