New surveys find significant though declined UK antiques ivory market
Wednesday, August 31, 2016 at 0:02
TRAFFIC in In Europe, Ivory, Report launch

TRAFFIC researchers found no new ivory among the 3,200 items for sale in London's antiques markets © Rachel Kramer / TRAFFIC London, UK, 31st August 2016—Although the antiques ivory market in the UK appears to have declined significantly there are still thousands of ivory items on sale in London’s markets, according to surveys carried out this April by TRAFFIC.

Researchers from TRAFFIC visited 13 antiques markets and two areas with antiques shops across London and also carried out online searches to record the number of ivory items on sale. Their findings were published today in A rapid survey of UK ivory markets (PDF, 2 MB).

They found a wide range of ivory items offered for sale, including figures (56%), household goods (27%), jewellery (9%) and personal items (8%); similar items were found for sale or auction online.

However, compared to surveys carried out in 2004, the researchers found fewer individual market stalls offering ivory, declining from around 640 stalls in 2004 to 200 in 2016, while the total number of ivory items for sale also declined, from around 6,000 items to 3,200 over the same period.

Links with the current elephant poaching crisis appear tenuous at best, as researchers found no new or raw (unworked) ivory for sale, and only one item that was reportedly after the 1947 cut-off date for antique ivory.

The nationality of buyers appeared to have changed too: in 2004 they were mainly American and European tourists, while in 2016 traders reported that travellers and citizens from East Asian countries and territories, including mainland China, Japan and Hong Kong were predominant.

Reasons proposed to explain the apparent physical market decline include the emergence of online sales and/or stricter legislation which, according to traders, has led to reduced prices and demand for ivory items. However, according to the study, comparisons should be made with caution as “the surveys conducted in 2004 and 2016 were not identical due to various unavoidable factors.”

Although the global ivory trade was banned in 1989, antique ivory (carved or “worked” products acquired before 3rd March 1947), and raw or carved “pre-Convention” ivory can be traded under certain circumstances.

According to figures from CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), between 2005 and 2014, the UK was a net (re-)exporter of ivory for commercial purposes, comprising 990 kg and ~54,000 ivory pieces, some 31% of the EU’s total. However, the study found evidence of potential irregularity. Of concern was a significant imbalance between the UK’s reported exports of only 17 raw tusks, but importers’ records showing 109 tusks originating from the UK. Furthermore, according to UK domestic measures, only worked specimens (antique or pre-Convention), not raw ivory, can legally be re-exported for commercial purposes. According to the study “it would be essential to clarify the reasons for these discrepancies.” Meanwhile seizure data “show that the UK plays a role in illegal ivory trade…in particular as a transit country, with ivory seizures…having increased in recent years.”

The researchers found mixed understanding amongst traders of what constitutes legal ivory sales. All traders were aware of there being a specific cut-off date for antiques and many of the stricter rules regarding ivory importation into, for example the USA and China, but some were far less knowledgeable. More worrying, some even suggested transporting ivory items in personal luggage or sending them by post, without documentation. Few dealers were able to provide proof of age or documentation to prove legal acquisition of their ivory for sale.

“Lack of awareness and/or clarity over the UK’s and destination country regulations on ivory trade and the specifics surrounding the antiques (pre-1947) derogation under the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations, appear to play a major role in the confusion,” said TRAFFIC’s Vicki Crook, one of the study’s authors.

“We urge the UK Government to compile simple guidance on applicable legislation both in the UK and destination countries and to share best practice guidelines on commercial antique ivory use with appropriate stakeholders.”

A number of other recommendations include examining the feasibility of making declarations regarding the age and acquisition of all ivory items mandatory, a targeting of postal/courier shipments sent to East Asia from the UK and systematic monitoring of the online retail market.

“The foundations of UK’s antique ivory trade are embedded in Pax Britannica1, which brought no peace for elephants,” said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s ivory trade expert. “An estimated 30,000 tonnes of ivory moved out of Africa into the UK between 1860–1920 and the tusks from at least 1.1 million elephants became household products for a rapidly expanding middle class.

“Every country—even those whose days of large scale ivory demand have long since passed—has a role to play in helping regulate the global ivory trade: the UK is no exception and needs to show strong leadership on the international stage.”


1 Pax Britannica refers to the period of relative worldwide peace between 1815–1914 when the British Empire was the dominant global superpower.

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