LEADING auction houses are coming under pressure to end sales of ivory, as conservationists are stepping up the battle to have the trade outlawed in Britain.
Dozens of campaigners staged a protest outside Christie’s auctioneers in London, calling for an end to all ivory trade, which they say is speeding the extinction of elephants.
Supporters of the Action for Elephants group rallied, waved placards and handed out leaflets to publicise the role that ivory sales in the UK play in allowing poaching to continue.
The protesters say that the legal trade in old ivory provides a cover for the illegal trade, feeding the slaying of elephants, as well as undermining enforcement of the law.
An average of 96 elephants a day – or one every 15 minutes – are killed for their tusks in Africa and Asia, leading to a catastrophic decline in populations, feared to be down to as few as 500,000, where once they were commonplace across the continents. An estimated 90 per cent of the millions that lived over a century ago have been wiped out.
The Conservatives pledged in both their 2010 and 2015 manifestos to press for a total ban on all ivory sales, and are facing pressure to act on the promise. Earlier this year, the heads of 26 leading conservation organisations wrote an open letter to David Cameron calling on him to implement a ban.
The protesters outside Christie’s said they wanted the world-famous auction house to take a stand and end all trade in old and antique ivory, which would encourage others to follow suit, ending the cover for illegal dealings.
“The illegal ivory market is thriving here in Britain, with no monitoring, and no sellers obtaining the legal documentation,” said organiser Maria Mossman.
“We will do more demos throughout the year. We are not going away.”
The campaigners handed in a letter to the company’s bosses pointing out the urgent need to act, in an attempt to halt the rapid decline in elephant numbers.
TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall interviewed some of the protesters for a BBC documentary later in the year. “He asked Christie’s to come out and speak to us but they said they had no comment at this time,” said Ms Mossman.
Across Europe, trade in ivory objects, such as jewellery, that date from before March 1947 is legal, under the rules of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
To buy and sell ivory objects from after that date, a licence is needed. But trading in “unworked ivory” – tusks – from after 1947 is illegal.
However, campaigners say it can be difficult or almost impossible – even for experts – to distinguish between pre- and post-1947 ivory.
Chiswick Auctions banned all sales of ivory after inadvertently breaching the law in 2014.
But ministers are also under pressure from within the trade not to crack down too hard. Some art and antiques dealers have claimed they will go out of business if a blanket ban is introduced, and have lobbied against one.
The illegal ivory market is thriving here in Britain
–Maria Mossman, Action for Elephants
Even China, one of the largest world markets for illegal ivory, is cracking down on the trade. Two days ago, it placed a ban until the end of the decade on imports of ivory and ivory products acquired before 1975.
Christie’s says on its website that it “unequivocally condemns the slaughter of elephants for illegal ivory”.
“Christie’s will not sell modern ivory, or unworked tusks of any age,” it goes on.
It admits that it sells some historic objects that contain ivory or are made of ivory, such as 18th- century furniture, sculpture, Japanese netsuke, and 18th-century silverware. But it adds: “We believe that the sale of these culturally significant works of art does not contribute to the current illegal elephant ivory trade, which is driven largely by the demand for contemporary religious, tourist and trophy pieces.
“In selling historic cultural objects which incorporate ivory, we are careful to abide by all global and local laws designed to protect elephants. In particular we operate in accordance with the CITES international convention and with all relevant national, federal and state regulations wherever we operate.
“Our specialists carry out stringent due diligence on the provenance of all such objects in order to satisfy ourselves that these strict criteria are met. Our intention is that no objects that pass through our hands are the product of the illicit trade in ivory.”
Photographs: Maria Mossman / Wikimedia/Creative Commons