Push to save African elephants stirs U.S. clash over antique ivory trade

Mon Sep 14, 2015 2:09pm EDT
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By Ayesha Rascoe

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.   Continued...

Ivory tusks are displayed after the official start of the destruction of confiscated ivory in Hong Kong May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu