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Obama Proposes Strict Rules on US Ivory Trade

On the occasion of his historic trip to East Africa, President Obama pledged stronger measures to end ivory sales in the United States, widely considered to be the world’s second largest market after China.

Speaking at a Saturday joint press conference alongside President Kenyatta of Kenya, Obama said:

Under current federal law, ivory can be sold legally across state lines if it was imported prior to January 18, 1990, the date when African elephants were officially listed under CITES Appendix I — the greatest level of international protection for threatened and endangered species such as gorillas, tigers and giant pandas. The seller is obligated to prove that the ivory for sale was imported before 1990. 

But under the new proposed rule, all interstate ivory sales would be illegal unless:

• An item is an antique exempted under the Endangered Species Act, and is at least 100 years old, among other criteria;


• The item contains only a small amount of ivory — specifically under 200 grams — that was acquired prior to 1990. Musical instruments, firearms and some furniture pieces could fall under this exempted category. 

"It is well past time to consign the ivory trade to history and to remove this threat to elephants," WildAid CEO Peter Knights said. "With China’s recent announcement of a phase-out of its own trade, two of the world’s largest markets will be shutting down, bringing much needed relief to Africa’s elephants."

The proposed rule also places stricter controls on non-commercial ivory imports, including sport-hunting trophies. Such limits have been vigorously opposed by the gun rights lobby: An NRA-backed Senate bill introduced last week seeks to prevent limits on interstate ivory sales as well as hunting trophy imports, though the legislation would face a near-certain presidential veto.

“By tightening domestic controls on trade in elephant ivory and allowing only very narrow exceptions, we will close existing avenues that are exploited by traffickers and address ivory trade that poses a threat to elephants in the wild,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe in a statement. “Federal law enforcement agents will have clearer lines by which to demarcate legal from illegal trade.”

However, the new federal rules would not affect existing intrastate ivory sales. Without strict state laws banning the trade, such as those passed last year in New York and New Jersey, ivory could still be sold legally in some markets. California, one of the nation's largest markets, is currently considering its own ivory ban, known as AB 96.

It’s this sort of legal trade that Chinese officials have insisted must end if the international community expects China to curtail its own trade, according to a Washington Post interview last month.

Read the full proposed rule here.