Your burning questions

Each month we will be answering your burning questions and offering tangible ways for you to make a real difference. When you know more, you are encouraged to do more.

April 2017 – UK delays domestic ivory trade ban, why?

Last December, China – the biggest consumer of ivory in the world – announced it would implement a comprehensive ban on its domestic ivory trade within a year.

According to research, the impact of this monumental decision is already being felt. Not only has the price of raw legal ivory dropped by almost two thirds since the announcement, but 67 of its 105 licensed ivory carving factories and retailers have closed, with the remainder to shut before the end of the year.

Despite demonstrable progression from China, the US, France and others in the wake of the International Union for Conservation of Nature motion which called on countries to close the internal trade of ivory ‘as a matter of urgency’, the UK remains sluggish. Why?

One possibility is that a total ban on domestic sales of ivory could interfere with free movement and property rights unless the Government could demonstrate that it is justified and proportionate. However, invoking the precautionary principle under the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development may provide the requisite justification. This states that where there are threats of serious or irreparable damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for delaying measures to protect environmental degradation. This means that the highly contested evidential correlation between domestic sales of ivory in the UK and the poaching of elephants in Africa should not be used as a reason to postpone the implementation of measures to protect and save the species.

The antiques industry should also be acknowledged. The British Antiques Association – whose president is Conservative MP Victoria Borwick –  opposes an outright ban and claims it would not stop poaching. Yet this is at odds with public opinion which recently revealed that 85% back an outright ban.


Further, the UK claims to have a ‘strong record as a global leader in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade’, yet it has supported several decisions with arguably disastrous consequences for elephants.

In 1989, when the international ivory ban was agreed, the UK attempted to achieve special immunity for the British colony of Hong Kong. Then in 2008, contrary to advice from over 100 non-governmental organisations and 27 African elephant range countries, the UK voted to allow China and Japan to buy stockpiled ivory from four African countries. Further still, as part of the EU voting bloc at the 2016 Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species conference in South Africa, the UK assisted in denying the two thirds majority needed to list all African elephants on Appendix I, which would have effectively prohibited international trade in ivory.

Therefore, whilst the UK’s reluctance to impose a total ban is confounding, it’s perhaps not surprising.

In September 2016, the Government announced plans for a domestic trade ban in modern (post 1947) ivory, leaving trade in older ivory items lawful in the UK. Drawing a distinction based on date is problematic due to the unreliability of carbon dating – a method which determines the age of the tusks themselves, rather than when the elephant died.

The Government also pledged to engage in public consultation in early 2017, but this is still yet to take place. A qualified ban is far from the Conservative election manifestos of 2010 and 2015 which promised to ‘press for a total ban on the ivory trade’. This departure led to a Parliamentary debate after a petition calling for stronger action received over 100,000 signatures.

Whilst petition debates cannot directly change laws, they can contribute to the legislative process, and the attitude of many MPs in attendance was encouraging. MP John Mann said, “…if we are incapable of fulfilling our role to protect for continuing generations the species that freely roam this planet…we have no role as politicians.

DEFRA Minister, Thérèse Coffey, accepted that public consultation would allow for a discussion of whether pre-1947 worked ivory should also be banned, but failed to set a date.

Ultimately, the devastation of elephant populations prescribes the urgency with which nations must act individually to close their domestic markets, and collectively to annihilate the international ivory trade.

It is crucial therefore, that public pressure on the Government does not wane in the wake of impressive ban related rhetoric, but instead expands, intensifies and proves robust enough to demand immediate action.

Please consider writing to your MP to request a date for the public consultation, and demand a total and unequivocal domestic ivory trade ban. You can find your local MP here.

Written by Magdalena Gray, Lawyer