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It's Going to Be a Bit Harder to Sell Ivory and Rhino Horn in California

California is poised to become the third state to regulate the trade within its borders — and follows a new federal prohibition on interstate trade.
September 4, 2015, 7:25pm
Photo by Narong Sangnak/EPA

A new bill in California that is poised to become law will overhaul the state's regulation of trade in ivory and rhino horn, dealing a significant blow to one of America's busiest hubs for the illegal market.

John Calvelli, an executive vice president at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), said the bill's passage was necessary because the old law proved ineffective in stopping a recent spike in the global ivory trade, which has largely been fueled by demand from a rising middle class in Asia.


"The law moving through the legislature will make it very clear what can and cannot happen," he told VICE News. "That's important, because unfortunately most of what we've been doing is documenting the extinction of African elephants. We have the power to stop it, and the simple fact is that by stopping, by closing domestic ivory markets, we're fundamentally helping to change the equation."

Related: China Outlaws the Eating of Tiger Penis Rhino Horn and Other Endangered Animal Products

The bill cleared the Senate on Wednesday and was sent back to the Assembly, where it passed earlier this year, for a concurrence vote. It will then go to the desk of Governor Jerry Brown, who is expected to sign it.

The bill would likely impact ivory trading for the entire nation because so much of it is based in California. There were more Craigslist posts offering ivory for sale from Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area than any other cities in the nation, according to a WCS and International Fund for Animal Welfare investigation. And, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that up to 90 percent of the ivory sold in Los Angeles and 80 percent sold in San Francisco was illegal under state law, confirming previous surveys that found both cities had the highest proportion of potentially illegal ivory pieces and the largest ivory market by number of pieces in the nation, trailing only New York City.


Added together, only China's ivory market is larger than that of the United States, according to a 2013 study by the United Nations.

The California legislation ramps up penalties for trading. Although the offense remains a misdemeanor, the highest fine rises from $5,000 to $50,000 or an amount equal to two times the total value of the ivory confiscated, as well as up to a year in jail.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife had been hesitant to enforce the state's ivory laws because they were contained within the state's penal code. The law clarifies that the agency is the lead law enforcer when it comes to illegal wildlife trade.

Ivory pieces made before 1977 were grandfathered into state law. That set up a loophole where ivory traders would make their pieces appear old, which would help them avoid scrutiny. The new law closes that loophole by outlawing the sale of all ivory pieces, regardless of their age, except with musical instruments and antiques with small amounts of the commodity.

Related: Obama Has Proposed a Ban on Almost All Ivory Sales in the United States

The California bill comes a year after New Jersey and New York passed similar trade restrictions. Those two bills were the first since the Obama administration issued an executive order in 2013 establishing a presidential taskforce on illegal wildlife trading aimed at developing mechanisms for crippling international poaching rings.


In July, the Obama administration announced new regulations to almost entirely eliminate the ivory trade between states. The new regulations also shift the burden of proving an item does not contain illegal ivory onto sellers; previously, prosecutors were hamstrung by a 1997 court ruling placing that burden on the government.

Some 35,000 elephants across Africa were killed in 2012 for their ivory, according to WCS. And, according to a 2008 study, African elephants could be extinct by 2020.

Yet, Calvelli remains hopeful that the California law, together with other state and federal regulations, will sufficiently constrain the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn.

"At the end of the day," he told VICE News, "we need to stop the demand. That's the real holy grail. We need to change people's perceptions of what the impact of purchasing a piece of ivory is."

Watch a ton of ivory get crushed in New York City's Times Square here:

Follow Aaron Cantú on Twitter: @aaronmiguel_