Various carved ivory objects (photograph courtesy Mattias Rosenkranz's Flickstream)

The European Commission has announced new restrictions on the ivory trade, bringing the European Union within spitting distance of a total ban on ivory. The move is responsive to alarm among conservationists and activists who worry that time to reverse the threat of elephant extinction is running out. Earlier this year, two species of African elephants — the African forest elephant and the African savanna elephant — were reclassified as endangered and critically endangered, based on precipitous population declines due to ivory poaching and habitat conversion. The EU’s new rules take effect on January 18, 2021.

The main objective of the new guidance is to ban all trade in raw ivory, though it also bans imports and re-exports of worked ivory. Intra-EU trade in worked ivory will be limited to pre-1947 antiques and pre-1975 musical instruments.

In 2016, the European Parliament adopted two resolutions that called for an end to the ivory trade. In 2017, the Commission followed up with a guidance including more specific provisions to implement these resolutions. Some exceptions on total ivory bans — mainly to allow the trade of ivory harvested long ago and ivory worked into historical antiques — have been common, and have existed in the EU. Legislators expected these arrangements to staunch the killing of elephants while permitting collectors and antique dealers to trade in objects that pre-date recent conservation efforts. Instead, however, many of these exceptions were taken advantage of by poachers, dealers, and buyers on the black market who retooled them into loopholes.

As of now, the EU’s regulations allow for the export of ivory dating from before the mid-1970s and the import of ivory before 1947. Currently, the age of ivory is routinely assessed by an antique expert, but research suggests that these judgment calls are often unreliable. A paper published earlier this year by a team of Czech researchers sampling 77 items seized by law enforcement officials concluded that 68 percent were not antique, and that in 86 percent of cases, an antique expert failed to correctly identify the ivory as postdating 1947. The universal ban on raw ivory beginning in January may close this loophole.

The guidance is non-binding, so European nations will have to draft legislation of their own to bring their own ivory regulations into compliance with the Commission’s recommendations. In the last several years, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the UK, and Belgium have all passed ivory bans with varying degrees of stringency. These laws share similarities with restrictions in the US and China, which have for years surpassed the EU’s in stringency and have already banned the ivory trade.

Some collectors and antique dealers are unhappy with the new rules, which they believe unfairly target segments of the ivory trade that play no part in the elephant crisis. In March, Ivan Macquisten opined for the Art Newspaper that there was little evidence that the antiques industry had any relationship with poaching and that the proposed regulations would have “tough consequences for the antiques trade.” Erika Bocherau, secretary general of CINOA, added, “It is hard to digest that the EU’s new restrictions on the trade of antique worked ivory were approved even though legislators acknowledge that none of the EU Member States have been identified as countries that are implicated in the illicit ivory trade.”

Despite low demand for ivory in Europe — the ivory market is largely driven by demand in Asia today — the European Commission hopes that further tightening the ivory market will put downward pressure on global demand and prices. A survey conducted by the European Commission ahead of the drafting of new regulations showed that over 90 percent of respondents supported an ivory ban.

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University. Find her on