Stop trading antiques and stop poaching

A legal challenge by a group of antique traders puts elephants under threat, argues Karen Botha 

Tuesday 15 October 2019 12:11
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The UK Ivory Act of 2018, which severely restricts the sale of ivory to, from and within this country, is intended to help save elephants. It has received overwhelming public and parliamentary support and the backing of most African countries where elephants live.

It has been hailed as “emerging international best practice,” with other countries following our lead. Yet the Act is now under threat, because a small group of antique dealers claim it is incompatible with EU law and infringes their human rights. Their Judicial Review claim will be heard at the High Court in London.

The antique dealers argue that because they deal in ivory from elephants killed many decades ago, there is no connection with the current poaching crisis in Africa, where around 50 elephants are killed every day.

The dealers are wrong. There is a clear link between the UK and the illegal ivory trade. This country has, in recent years,been by far the largest exporter of antique ivory items to Asia, especially China and Hong Kong.

This trade sustains the interest in, and desire for, ivory; if people cannot afford an antique, they turn readily to cheaper, more modern alternatives, either knowingly or inadvertently.

In other words, our trade helps fuel the demand in those markets which receive huge quantities of poached ivory every year, representing the deaths of tens of thousands of elephants.

There are also many examples of newer ivory being sold in the UK portrayed as antique ivory in breach of the current law, which is largely disregarded.

It is often difficult to tell the difference between ‘antique’ and contemporary ivory. The majority of antique dealers are not ivory experts.

How can they be? They deal in hundreds of different items, across all types of material, form and function.

There are no qualifications required to become an antique dealer. Most are not even members of the British Antique Dealers Association, which is in any event a trade association rather than an oversight body.

Many dealers cannot age or even identify ivory. A plastic ivory-coloured box was shown to three London antique dealers: two identified it as ivory (one said it was Victorian, the other that it was modern) and only one successfully spotted it was plastic.

Fortunately, China and Hong Kong are taking action to end the ivory trade. Other countries including the USA, France, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand have taken, or are considering, action to do likewise.

This is a global battle against criminal networks that supply poached ivory to wherever they can sell it. Through the Ivory Act, the UK is not only playing its part in that battle but is taking a lead that others are following, just as the Government hoped when it proposed the Act.

Are we now going to abandon an international consensus which we helped to build? Whilst the antiques trade argue the Act is incompatible with EU law, the European Commission does not seem to agree.

Far from bringing infringement proceedings against the UK, they have recently issued proposals to bring EU law on ivory closer to English law, even copying some of the language from the Act.

As for arguing that the Act infringes human rights (the right to property), very few antique dealers or auctioneers will suffer appreciable economic harm because of the Act: recent data from a large number of auction houses showed that ivory items represented around 0.7% of annual sales, and that most sales were of low value pieces selling for less than £120.

The Ivory Act does not ban ownership of ivory. It does not prevent the veneration of religious objects or stop individuals from inheriting and passing on family heirlooms.

It specifically exempts exceptional items, along with musical instruments, portrait miniatures and objects containing small amounts of ivory. It does not stop people selling or donating ivory objects to museums where they can be more widely appreciated for their historic and artistic value.

People who wish to see an end to the commercial trade in ivory are not philistines with a desire to eradicate the craft and artistry of previous generations. But they are against people making money out of trading in ivory; only when that stops will the poaching end.

The antiques trade has cited the example of ivory-handled silver teapots that could no longer be sold because they do not fall into any of the exemptions. Is that really the choice,saving elephants, or the trade in a few teapots? I know which I would choose.

Karen Botha is the CEO of the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

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