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Ivory

Ivory Imports into U.S.

Ivory as an import from China item into the U.S. is highly restricted.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services impose many import and export restrictions, prohibitions, permits or certifications and quarantine requirements on Fish and Wildlife Fish, wildlife and products made from them.  A special permit is required to import ivory of any kind into the U.S.  There are many prohibitions and restrictions on all kinds of ivory from Asian elephants, African elephant, whale, rhinoceros, seal and many others.

There are some limited circumstances where you can import ivory into the U.S.  Antiques which are at least 100 years old and made of ivory are permitted to be imported into the U.S.  However, you will need documentation to prove the authenticity and age of the ivory antique. It is wise to contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services if you are considering importing ivory into the U.S.

History of Ivory Trade

The exploitation of animals for their ivory has been part of man's history for centuries.  The biggest source for ivory has been the tusks of elephants.  Carved ivory made from African elephants has been prized by collectors for its beauty and durability.  A male elephant's tusk (tooth enamel) averages 6 feet in length and weighs 50 lbs.

The Egyptian pharaohs hunted the elephants along the Euphrates River and the Nile River as early as of the 15th and 16th centuries B.C.  During the 17th century A.D., the ivory exploitation grew over a large area of Africa which resulted in the decline of the African elephant.  For instance, Kenya's elephant population decline from 130,000 in 1973 to less than 20,000 in 1989.  In order to extract ivory from an elephant, the animal has to be killed because approximately one third of the tusk is embedded in a bone socket in the skull.

Ivory was a much sought after commodity that was used in the manufacturing of combs, knife handles, toys, piano keys, furniture, billiard balls and works of art.  Asia had a well-developed ivory carving industry for many centuries.  China and India were the leading importing and manufacturing nations.

Poaching and the Ivory Trade Today

By 1989, the decline of the elephant population was so severe that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES) banned the ivory trade entirely.  One hundred countries agreed to ban the sale of ivory to protect the dwindling African elephant population. The United States was amongst those 100 countries making it illegal to import ivory.  By 1992, no countries in the world were legally able to import ivory.

Even though the ivory trade has been halted, illegal poaching still occurs today.  Poachers love the value of ivory in the black market.  One large elephant tusk can sell for up to $7,000.  After the raw tusk has been carved into jewelry or other art forms, there is even more money making opportunities in this illegal trade.  

Illegal Ivory is still an issue as an import from China item today.  There are only 30,000 to 40,000 Asian elephants left in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund.  The African elephant declined from over 1.2 million in the 1970’s to only 600,000 today.

Even though it has been illegal to import ivory from endangered species into the U.S. since 1989, it is still legal to import tusks from mammoths and other ivory like materials.  This makes it extremely difficult for inspectors to tell the difference between legal and illegal ivory.  The mammoth, a relative to today’s elephant has been extinct for over 10,000 years.  However, there are still at least 13 million pounds of mammoth tusks existing worldwide.  Much of it is preserved in the Arctic as buried fossils.  Importing mammoth ivory is legal because it does harm the lives of existing wildlife species.  Recognizing this loophole, many poachers just claim that their elephant ivory came from mammoths.  

Modern science using forensic technology can tell the difference between ivory from an elephant or from a mammoth.  The equipment requires an expensive scanning electron microscope ($250,000) and a protractor.  But this technology has not been applied at U.S. border inspection yet.  So ivory poaching and importing ivory are growing and remain problems for the import export trade today.