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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The ornate ivory statues and carvings sold in Scott Defrin's New York gallery date from the 17th and 18th centuries, but the antique dealer's business is being upended by a 21st century fight over saving the African elephant.
Despite a 25-year-old international ban on most international elephant ivory trade, poachers are illegally slaughtering elephants by the thousands for their tusks and wildlife advocates blame the remaining ivory trade.
In the United States, regulations against trading in ivory are tightening. The state of New York has adopted a near total ban and the Obama administration is tightening federal rules.
This is unfair, say people like Defrin, whose gallery sells costly figurines, vases and other ivory curios. Such antiques contain ivory taken from elephants in the distant past, sometimes centuries ago, and should not be subject to sales restrictions, they say.
Defrin said regulations already in place have damaged his business, drying up European demand for his goods and restricting import of ivory.
"They've basically ruined the collective antique trade," he said. "Is this really something that will stop poor African people from killing elephants?"
Yes, say wildlife advocates and regulators. They say an "antique loophole" in existing rules sometimes allows new ivory to be disguised as old, fueling global demand for tusks and keeping illegal poaching profitable.
"This poaching crisis in Africa is being driven by demand for ivory," said Laura Noguchi, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
With the U.S. Congress back this month after a summer break, a fight over ivory trade regulation is taking shape. It will not be a top priority for lawmakers faced with other urgent decisions. But it may get attention due to the involvement of the National Rifle Association.
One of Washington's most powerful special interest groups, the NRA is advocating for the interests of gun enthusiasts with ivory-decorated weapons.
Alaska's Don Young and California's Ken Calvert, both Republican representatives, are offering legislation to soften Obama administration restrictions issued over the last year.
"The administration's ivory rule is well-intentioned, but was not crafted carefully enough to account for law-abiding Americans who may possess legally obtained products containing ivory," Calvert told Reuters in a statement.
Ivory has been used for hundreds of years in manufacturing items such as the tips of bows for stringed instruments, piano keys, decorative items for the home, and importantly, for ornamental inlays in rifle and shotgun stocks and handgun grips.
Even though the ivory trade is largely curbed globally under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an estimated 100,000 African elephants were killed by poachers between 2010 and 2012, according to a study last year by the National Academy of Sciences.
Much of the demand for ivory comes from Asia. In China, a growing affluent class has increasingly sought ivory as an ornamental item. Some experts have reported that speculators in eastern Asia are stockpiling raw ivory, hoping it will fetch higher prices in the future.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which regulates ivory sales on a federal level, said the United States is a "significant market" for ivory, though it had no detailed estimates for ivory trading in the country.
The agency issued a director's order last year prohibiting commercial import of all ivory, without exception, and clarified other limits on ivory exports. The agency followed up that order with a proposal in July that would further limit exports of ivory to legally qualified antiques.
The proposal would offer an exemption allowing the sale of certain manufactured items that contain less than 200 grams (7 ounces) of ivory, a move the service said should include most firearms and musical instruments.
New York state outlawed the sale of ivory last year, offering exceptions only for items proven to be antique and containing only a small amount of ivory. Earlier this month, California's legislature approved a similar measure.
Just how much new illegal ivory may be "laundered" as antique is unclear. A study of ivory for sale in Los Angeles in 2014 commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, found that up to 90 percent of the ivory surveyed may have been illegal under California law, and as much as 60 percent may have been prohibited under federal law.
The study's author, Daniel Stiles, cautioned that determining the age of ivory by visual examination is subjective. The only way to firmly date ivory is based on carbon dating and DNA tests, which are costly and require cutting into the ivory.
Wildlife groups have applauded the Obama administration's actions and are seeking more bans at the state level on even the sale of antique ivory similar to New York's statute.
"The more we can eliminate legal markets in ivory, the more difficult it becomes to sell ivory illegally," said Andrew Wetzler, director of the wildlife program for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Frances Kerry