Five Years On: The UK Ivory Act 2018

The passing of the UK ivory act 2018 was both momentous and important. Momentous because finally a significant nation state was taking a comprehensive legislative interest in the topic of ivory trade cessation and important because it has added great weight to the global conversation and drive to eliminate the trading markets that inspire the poaching in the first place. Several years on, its worth reflecting on what impacts this legislation has had, and what challenges remain with this pressing conservation cause.

To begin with, five more species are set to be included within the act in an effort to stamp out the trade in the tusks and teeth from them. The hippopotamus, walrus, narwhal and two types of whale will enjoy the protection of the UK Ivory Act 2018. Authorities have acknowledged that these additional species have been used by smugglers and traders as both a replacement for lost ivory trade and as a substitute to misrepresent as ivory. It is a depressing example of markets adapting but it is heartening that the UK has seen fit to respond to this development with expanded provisions within the act. 

But legislation is one thing and action is another, as Elliot Doornbos and Angus Nurse point out in their recent piece, “UK ivory trade ban extended to five more species – here’s why we think it will be ineffective” published in “The Conversation”. They remind us that there are several key challenges that must be appreciated and dealt with if we are to ensure that this type of conservation-minded legislation realises its goals of eradicating the trade and consumption of these materials.

Firstly, a truly coordinated and unified global response to the protection of elephants and their ivory is still lacking. Yes, we have CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, that came into effect in 1975, but there remain signatories that have done just that – signed, but with no further action to their commitment and often when a framework for enforcement is attempted it is bedeviled by a lack of resourcing and/or a will to succeed.

Doornbus and Nurse identify other state-level pieces of the enforcement puzzle that will remain key to ensuring legislation like the UK act can bring about real impact.

Regulation is different from prohibition.
While regulation is often the forerunner to efforts at prohibition, there remain numerous states that allow the continued trade in existing ivory stocks and the objects created from them. In turn, this further confounds enforcement agencies in their efforts to identify and focus on the illegal trade that can still seek cover within legitimate markets. While ambitious, the goal should be a unified approach across all nation states and ideally, an almost complete prohibition in trade along the lines of the UK model.

Where are the police?
Any legislation is only as good as its resourcing and enforcement. Research into the UK’s enforcement revealed a lack of enthusiasm for the subject matter of the legislation combined with a knowledge gap when it comes to understanding the ivory market and its ongoing direct connection to the elephant poaching crisis. And if it wasn’t enough of a challenge already for police to have to contend with the oversight of the general population’s interactions with ivory trade and all its nuances, add to this organised crime’s active involvement in the material, and police work becomes even more complex.   

The challenges identified are not new, but they do remind us that legislative acts like the UK one require an activation of stakeholders at every level of the community, from government, to antique dealers and auctioneers, through to the conservation-minded citizen on the street who is unsettled by the sight of ivory in a shop window. Acts like these are good and they are unquestionably the foundation stone of any state-sponsored effort to eliminate such trade but the act itself has no effect unless people, money, and time are devoted to providing a sustainable framework of surveillance, detection, seizure, and penalties. 

It is my hope that the UK act continues to provide a reference point of inspiration for the practical eradication of ivory and related trade and while real-impact challenges will always remain, I think the addition of five more species to the ban is a very real sign that the legislation and its intent is inspiring expanded action and that the UK at least is developing a fluency in the important task at hand. 

References: Doornbos, E. and Nurse, A. (2023) UK ivory trade ban extended to five more species – here’s why we think it will be ineffective, The Conversation. 

By John Albrecht, Chairman & Head of Important Collections

November 2023