In the midst of a booming ivory trade that threatens to wipe out Africa's elephants, the Obama administration announced on Saturday a proposal for new regulations that would almost entirely eliminate ivory sales in the United States.
The new rules would ban nearly all sales of ivory from state to state, while increasing restrictions on ivory leaving the country.
"The United States is among the world's largest consumers of wildlife, both legal and illegal," Dan Ashe, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), said. "We want to ensure our nation is not contributing to the scourge of poaching that is decimating elephant populations across Africa."
Though the law still allows exemptions for antique items or objects with a minimal amount of ivory, like a violin bow, it shifts the burden of proof to the seller. Previously, law enforcement officials were faced with the difficult task of tracing suspected black market ivory to an illegal source.
"That allowed illegal ivory to be sold pretty readily on the US market," Leigh Henry, a policy adviser with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), told VICE News. "Now with this one simple twist the seller has to prove that the ivory is legal. It's a huge win."
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Africa is currently home to about 420,000 elephants, a 65 percent decline from the 1.2 million elephants roaming the continent in 1980, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The FWS estimates that between 2010 and 2012, poachers killed an elephant for its ivory every 15 minutes.
Despite ivory bans put in place in 1989, much of the ivory taken from poached African elephants still ends up in the United States. A 2013 study by the United Nations found that the US ivory market is the second largest in the world, behind only China.
Because the market is illegal, its difficult to estimate its size, FWS official Craig Hoover told VICE News. But government investigations and independent surveys both show that illegal ivory continues to make its way through US borders.
A recent survey by the Natural Resources Defense Council found more than1,250 ivory items for sale by more than 100 vendors in just Los Angeles and San Francisco. Half of the ivory had been recently manufactured, double the rate found in a similar 2006 study.
In 2009, FWS agents seized more than a ton of ivory from Philadelphia art dealer Victor Gordon, who had been artificially aging new ivory with stains and dyes to make it appear to comply with trade rules. Under the new laws, Hoover said, it would be up to a dealer like a Gordon to prove to any officials who questioned him that his ivory fit the narrow legal requirements for sales.
"If he says, 'Well, I can't do that,' then he has a problem," Hoover told VICE News.
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Conservationists are also hoping that a stricter approach from the United States will pressure other countries with large markets to crack down on their own illegal trades. In June, shortly after China pledged to ban ivory sales, officials there called on the United States to make changes, saying they would not act alone.
"The fact that we made the interstate regulations a lot more strict is going to go a long way in reducing our domestic markets here, and hopefully it will really push states to have their own regulations," Tara Easter, a scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), told VICE News. "We're highly influential so if we can shut down our market here that's going to go a long way for other countries as well."
In the meantime, CBD is pursuing another route to protect the elephants, which are currently listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act. In June, the organization filed a petition with the FWS to list forest elephants and savannah elephants as separate species, and to bump both of their statuses up to endangered to afford them extra protections.
In addition to being genetically distinct species, forest and savannah elephants face different threats from poaching, Easter said. For example, loggers in West and Central Africa are building new roads through the elephants' habitat, making it easier for poachers to access the elephants. With no more than 100,000 left in Africa, they could face extinction within the decade, according to CBD's petition.
An endangered classification would wipe out the new law's exception for trace amounts of ivory, as well as the exemption for importing and exporting antiques, Easter said.
"They're really being hit quite hard," Easter told VICE News. "It seems difficult for me to be able to justify any sort of ivory trade when you're faced with the very real possibility of losing an entire species because of it."
Watch the VICE News documentary "Ivory Crush in Times Square" here:
Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro