D.C. City Council passes legislation to halt ivory market

(alexstrachan/Pixabay)

The District of Columbia's City Council has passed a law to ban the sale of elephant ivory and rhino horn after recent investigations have shown the city to be a flourishing market for ivory goods.

The sale of ivory and rhino horn endangers at-risk animal populations. An estimated 97 elephants are killed for their tusks daily. According to the Great Elephant Census, there was a 30% loss of African savannah elephants over the seven-year period of 2007 to 2014. While rhinoceros populations have grown in the last decade due to the implementation of protections, the International Rhino Foundation estimates 900 rhinos, roughly 3% of the total population, were killed in 2018.

Kate Dylewsky, senior policy advisor at the Animal Welfare Institute, suggests it was due time for the District to join the 11 states who previously have passed similar legislation to halt the sale of ivory goods.

“I think it has become increasingly apparent over these years that it is incumbent upon D.C., as a major metropolitan area, to act on this issue, particularly because other large markets for these wildlife products, like New York, for example, have been shut down due to successful legislation,” she said. “The ivory market has migrated to the remaining locations where it can flourish and that includes D.C. So, you know, it was the right moment for the council to say this is something we need to tackle.”

Dylewsky also credits the investigatory work done in recent years for bringing details about the ivory market in the District to light. While the federal Endangered Species Act protects from ivory sale and transport between states, a flourishing ivory market continued within the city. A 2017 report by the wildlife monitoring organization TRAFFIC reported that the city had more ivory for sale than the five other major cities surveyed, including New York and Los Angeles. 

In 2019, a Humane Society investigation found ivory for sale at several local antique stores and vendors at the Georgetown Flea Market. These ivory goods included a full engraved task valued at $600,000 and a multi-figure game board valued at $48,000. Yet, the true price of these products is actually far higher: The International Rangers Federation reports that 269 rangers were killed across Africa between 2012 and 2018, primarily by poachers who profit off the sale of animal parts.

This passing of the Elephant Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Prohibition act is a long-sought victory for activists and environmentalists, such as DC Voters for Animals founder Max Broad. Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced the bill for the first time in 2015.

“Mary Cheh is great on these issues, but she can’t do it alone,” Broad said. “So, when nobody else is championing the policy, then the bill… even though it didn’t have any opposition… the bills couldn’t move forward. So that’s where getting up grassroots support really made a difference.”

For Broad, amassing grassroots support included standing on the streets and collecting signatures in DC’s Ward 6, the ward represented by judiciary committee chair Councilmember Charles Allen. In previous proposals, the bill had been sent to the judiciary committee before dying in council sessions. In November of last year, Broad and leaders of other animal rights NGOs led a “tweetstorm” with the intent to further draw Councilmember Allen’s attention. Supporters, including international nonprofits and D.C. residents, participated in the storm which received more than 11,000 Twitter impressions, according to Broad.

Following the tweetstorm, representatives from organizations such as the Animal Welfare Institute, Humane Society, and DC Environmental Network met with judiciary committee staff to address technical aspects of the legislation. 

“When it came down to it, it was really just about grassroots support of individual volunteers in the District that care about these issues Tweeting about it and writing their councilmember that they care about these issues and then it was a matter of the coalition of NGOs coming together and unifying our voice in support of this,” Broad said.

When asked whether the presence of this legislation in the District will simply push the ivory and rhino horn market elsewhere, Dylewsky said this fear is not worth the risk of stalling progress.

“I think it certainly has impetus for us to continue this work elsewhere and for us to continue to do that research and analysis to identify other hotspots that may emerge for sales,” she said. “But at a certain point, I think, you reach this tipping point where sellers of these wildlife products no longer find it profitable, or find it too much trouble to continue, to keep them in stock, to continue to offer them to buyers. And I think the combination of the federal regulations from 2016 that prevent nearly all import, export, and interstate commerce of ivory, combined with the 11 states and now the District of Columbia that have now passed state-level legislation restricting these sales — I would like to believe that we are very close to that tipping point.”

Dylewsky is hopeful that the passage of the bill will set a precedent for action on similar issues within the District in the future.

“I think there’s a lot of appetite for expanding upon humane legislation and I think the more bills, like this one, that pass and are implemented successfully and produce good results, the easier it is to make an argument that D.C. should be emerging as a leader in humane legislation and that this is something that really fits with the culture of our city,” she said.

The Elephant Ivory and Rhinocerous Horn Prohibition Act was signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser on April 27, 2020. It has been sent to Congress for final approval, with a projected law date of September 10, 2020. Our previous reporting on the issue is found here.

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