USFWS Moves to Ban Commercial Elephant Ivory and Rhino Horn Trade
Questions & Answers


General Q&As

How will these actions impact me? Additional information for:
Antique Dealers
Hunters
Ivory Carvers
Traders in Elephant Leathers
Owners of elephant ivory, rhino horn, and other items derived from these species
Musicians and musical instrument manufacturers
Zoos, circuses, and exhibitors
Museums and educational institutions


General Q&As

Given the unparalleled and escalating threats to both African elephants and rhinos, we believe that a nearly complete ban on commercial elephant ivory and rhino horn trade is the best way to ensure that U.S. domestic markets do not contribute to the decline of these species in the wild. To accomplish this, we will immediately pursue the following administrative actions:

  • Prohibit Commercial Import of Elephant Ivory: We will eliminate broad administrative exceptions to the 1989 African Elephant Conservation Act (AECA) moratorium that have allowed commercial import of antique ivory.
  • Clarify the Definition of “Antique”: We will incorporate the Endangered Species Act’s exemptions for commercial trade of 100-year-old antiques into regulations that re-affirm the criteria that must be met for an item to qualify as an antique.
  • Strengthen Endangered Species Act Protection for African Elephants: We will revoke the regulations that allow African elephant ivory to be traded in ways that would otherwise be prohibited by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 
  • Reinforce International Controls on Wildlife Trade Domestically: We will finalize a proposed rule that will re-affirm, clarify and improve public understanding of the “use- after-import” provisions in U.S. CITES regulations, so as to reduce sales, including intrastate sales (i.e. sale within a state), of wildlife that was imported for noncommercial purposes. 
  • Support Limited Sport-hunting of African Elephants: Limit the number of elephant sport-hunted trophies that an individual can import to two per hunter per year. 

What is the U.S. role in the illegal elephant ivory trade?

african-elephant-walking-down-path

Credit:  Bernard Dupont CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The United States is among the world’s largest consumers of wildlife, both legal and illegal. As with any black market trade, it is difficult to determine the exact market value or rank the U.S. role in comparison to other nations. However, we remain a significant ivory market, and we must continue to be vigilant in combating illegal ivory trade. By effectively controlling illegal ivory trade at home and assisting elephant range states and consumer countries around the world, we can have a significant impact on elephant conservation.

Our current laws and regulations focus on controlling import and export, while allowing some ivory trade within the United States. Ivory sold in the United States typically involves worked items such as carvings and components of larger finished products such as knife handles, billiard cues, and furniture. Ivory is sold in retail shops as well as through online sellers. Though much of this trade is in antiques and other legally acquired ivory imported prior to the 1989 AECA ivory import moratorium, we believe a substantial amount of elephant ivory is illegally imported and enters the domestic market. It is extremely difficult to differentiate legally acquired ivory from ivory derived from elephant poaching. Our criminal investigations and anti-smuggling efforts have clearly shown that legal ivory trade can serve as a cover for illegal trade. As just one example, Service and State officers seized more than $2-million–dollars-worth of illegal elephant ivory from two New York City retail stores in 2012.

What are the cumulative effects of these actions?
If these actions are finalized, the following activities will be prohibited:

  • Commercial import of African elephant ivory
  • Export of non-antique African and Asian elephant ivory (except in exceptional circumstances as permitted under the ESA)
  • Interstate commerce (sale across state lines) of non-antique African and Asian elephant ivory (except in exceptional circumstances as permitted under the ESA)
  • Sale, including intrastate sale (sale within a state), of African and Asian elephant ivory unless the seller can demonstrate that the ivory was lawfully imported prior to listing in CITES Appendix I (1990 for African elephant; 1975 for Asian elephant) or under a CITES pre-Convention certificate or other exemption document

If these actions are finalized, the following activities will be limited:

  • Imports of African elephant ivory will be limited to certain items and purposes where the ivory item will not be sold, including ivory for law enforcement and scientific purposes, specified worked ivory items such as musical instruments, items in museums and other exhibitions, and items that are part of a household move. 
  • Import of African elephant sport-hunted trophies will be limited to two trophies per hunter per year.

When will these actions take effect?
The actions described above will involve different processes and timelines. We are already working on these actions, and initial steps will be taken within the next several weeks. However, some of these actions will be open to public comment, so completion of some actions will take substantially more time.

  • Prohibit Commercial Import of Elephant Ivory: As a first step, we will issue a Director’s Order that will provide guidance to Service officers on enforcement of the existing 1989 African Elephant Conservation Act moratorium. The Order will lay out all of the actions to be undertaken by the Service to address the current crisis with elephants and rhinoceroses. We anticipate issuance of this Order by mid-February, 2014. We will also publish a proposed or interim final rule with an opportunity for public comment to revise the 1989 AECA moratorium as well as create regulations under the AECA in our general wildlife import/export regulations (50 CFR Part 14). We anticipate publishing a proposed or interim final rule by the end of June.
  • Clarify the Definition of “Antique”: This action, like the action above, will require a two-step process. In the same Director’s Order described above, we will provide guidance to Service officers on the antique exemption under the ESA. We anticipate issuance of this Order by mid-February. We will publish a proposed or interim final rule with an opportunity for public comment to revise our endangered species regulations (50 CFR Part 17) to provide guidance on the statutory exemption for antiques. We anticipate publishing a proposed or interim final rule by the end of June.
  • Strengthen Endangered Species Act Protection for African Elephants: We will propose to revoke the ESA African elephant special rule (50 CFR 17.40(e)). This action will require publication of a proposed or interim final rule with an opportunity for public comment, followed by a final rule. We anticipate publishing a proposed or interim final rule by the end of April, 2014.
  • Reinforce International Controls on Wildlife Trade: We will finalize revisions to our U.S. CITES regulations (50 CFR Part 23), including the “use-after-import” provisions in 50 CFR 23.55. These revisions have already been published as a proposed rule with a public comment period. We anticipate publishing a final rule by the end of February, 2014. The revised regulations will be in effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.
  • Support Limited Sport-hunting of African Elephants: We will publish a proposed or interim final rule with an opportunity for public comment to revise the 1989 AECA moratorium and create regulations under the AECA in our general wildlife import/export regulations (50 CFR Part 14). We anticipate publishing a proposed or interim final rule by the end of June, 2014.

Why is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service taking these actions?
Last July, President Obama issued an Executive Order committing the United States to step up its efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. The Executive Order created an interagency taskforce, co-chaired by the Department of the Interior, and appointed a Federal Advisory Council to galvanize efforts to work across the government and the conservation community to strengthen and expand our response to the wildlife trafficking and poaching crisis. As stated in the President’s Executive Order, wildlife trafficking reduces the economic, social and environmental benefits of wildlife, while generating billions of dollars in illicit revenues each year, contributing to the illegal economy, fueling instability and undermining security. It is in the national interest of the United States to combat wildlife trafficking and ensure that we are not contributing to the growing global demand for elephant ivory and rhino horn.

Why not impose a complete ban on all import, export and domestic sale?
Under current laws, we are not able to impose a complete elephant ivory ban.  With regard to both Asian and African elephants, the Endangered Species Act explicitly exempts antiques from ESA prohibitions and allows certain activities with the issuance of an ESA permit.  Also, the African Elephant Conservation Act only applies to import and export and does not address Asian elephant ivory.  In addition, there are certain activities that would be precluded by a complete ban that we believe would benefit the conservation of elephants or that do not contribute to poaching and illegal trade.  Among these are the movement of ivory for law enforcement purposes and bona fide scientific purposes and the noncommercial movement of certain items, such as museum specimens and musical instruments containing pre-Act or antique ivory.    Precluding such items would not benefit elephant conservation.  However, we believe that the administrative actions available to us would result in a near complete ban and provide us with sufficient tools to ensure that the United States is not contributing to the poaching and illegal trade crisis.

Why do you allow the import of elephant sport-hunted trophies at all?  What about other species?
The AECA, ESA and CITES allow the noncommercial import of sport-hunted trophies as long as certain conditions are met.  We believe that well-regulated and managed sport hunting can contribute to conservation by putting much needed revenue back into protected area management, anti-poaching and other important conservation activities.  We will propose to restrict elephant trophy imports to two elephants per hunter per year.  In addition, we will continue to closely monitor sport-hunting of elephants and other species to ensure that it does not threaten wild populations; where necessary, we will increase restrictions or prohibit imports from at-risk populations altogether. 

What is the U.S. role in the illegal rhino horn trade?

african-elephant-walking-down-path

Credit: Colin the Scot CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Approximately 2,800 rhinos have been poached in South Africa since 2008, a more than 7,000 percent increase compared to the previous 17 years. Most illegal rhino horn trade is destined for Vietnam and other Asian countries, where demand is driven by both traditional and non-traditional uses. However, the United States continues to play a role as both a consumer country and, increasingly, as a transit country for previously imported horns. The latter trend has been well documented in the Service’s Operation Crash, an ongoing nationwide crackdown on illicit rhino horn trade in the United States that has already led to 15 arrests, nine convictions and the seizure of significant numbers of rhino horns.

What activities involving elephant ivory will still be allowed?

  • Possession of lawfully imported and acquired elephant ivory items;
  • Import and export of certain elephant ivory items that will not be sold;
  • Interstate commerce (sale across state lines) and export of bona fide antiques; and
  • Intrastate commerce (sale within a state) of bona fide antiques or ivory that the seller can demonstrate was lawfully imported prior to listing in CITES Appendix I (1990 for African elephant; 1975 for Asian elephant) or under a CITES pre-Convention certificate or other exemption document.

What other types of ivory are used, and how will they be affected by these actions?
These actions will not affect ivory derived from other species such as walrus, warthog, hippopotamus, mammoth and mastodon. Asian elephant ivory is already regulated under the ESA and CITES. Ivory derived from toothed whales is already regulated by the ESA, CITES and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Strict application of the ESA definition of antique may limit some Asian elephant and whale ivory trade. See the section about antiques for more information.

How does prohibiting commercial use of antiques and other old ivory help elephant populations in Africa?
Illegal ivory trade is driving a dramatic increase in African elephant poaching, threatening the very existence of this species. It is extremely difficult to differentiate legally acquired ivory, such as ivory imported in the 1970s, from ivory derived from elephant poaching. Our criminal investigations and anti-smuggling efforts have shown clearly that legal ivory trade can serve as a cover for illegal trade. By significantly restricting ivory trade in the United States, it will be more difficult to launder illegal ivory into the market and thus reduce the threat of poaching to imperiled elephant populations.

What other elephant products will be affected?
If the ESA special rule for the African elephant (50 CFR 17.40(e)) is revoked as we propose, commercial import, export and interstate sale of all non-antique African elephant specimens will be prohibited without an ESA permit. In addition to ivory, this prohibition would apply to skins, leather products, hair and hair products. See section on the leather trade for more information.

How are rhino horn, hawksbill sea turtle shell and specimens of other CITES Appendix-I species affected?
Our CITES regulations (50 CFR 23.55) place limits on how CITES Appendix-I and certain Appendix-II specimens may be used after import into the United States. The purpose is to prevent commercial use of specimens after import into the United States when only noncommercial trade is allowed under CITES. These provisions apply not only to elephant ivory, but also to rhino horn, hawksbill sea turtle shell and other specimens of Appendix-I species. We are in the process of finalizing a proposed rule updating our CITES regulations, including amendments to the “use-after-import” provisions. Use after import of Appendix-I specimens is limited to noncommercial purposes except when a person can demonstrate that the specimens were imported before the species was listed in Appendix I, or they were imported under a pre-Convention certificate or other CITES exemption document. We expect to publish the final rule by the end of February and will use this opportunity to improve public understanding of the “use-after-import” provisions. The revised regulations will be in effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register. See the section on antiques for more information. Activities involving specimens of Appendix-I species that are listed under the ESA must also meet ESA requirements.

How is pre-Act (pre-ESA) defined under the ESA?
Specimens (e.g. elephant ivory, hair or leather) defined as pre-Act may be exempt from standard prohibitions on import or export. To qualify as pre-Act, a specimen must:

  • Have been held in captivity or in a controlled environment prior to December 28, 1973, or prior to the date of first listing under the ESA; and
  • Such holding or use and any subsequent holding or use was not in the course of a commercial activity.

For what purposes can an ESA permit be issued and what is the process?
For species listed as endangered, such as the Asian elephant, permits can be issued for scientific purposes, enhancement of propagation or survival, incidental taking or economic hardship.  For species listed as threatened, permits can be issued for scientific purposes, enhancement of propagation or survival, economic hardship, zoological exhibition, educational purposes, incidental taking or other special purposes consistent with the purposes of the Act. For more information about permit application processes and requirements, visit our Permits page.


Antique Dealers

How is “antique” defined under the ESA?
Specimens (e.g., elephant ivory, hair or leather) defined as “antique” may be exempt from standard prohibitions on import, export and interstate sale. To qualify for the “antique” exemption, the importer, exporter or seller must prove that the specimen:

african-elephant-walking-down-path

Collection of ivory figurines destroyed during Ivory Crush
Credit:  Kate Miyamoto/USFWS

  • Is 100 years or older;
  • Is composed in whole or in part of an ESA-listed species;
  • Has not been repaired or modified with any such species on or after December 28, 1973; and
  • Is being or was imported through an endangered species antique port.

How will trade in antiques be impacted?
Eliminating the broad exceptions to the 1989 AECA moratorium will prohibit the commercial import of antiques made of African elephant ivory. Import of antiques will only be allowed for certain items not destined for sale, including household effects, musical instruments, museum specimens and other noncommercial items traveling on a CITES musical instrument certificate or traveling exhibition certificate.  

Commercial and noncommercial import of antiques made out of other endangered species, such as Asian elephant or rhinoceros, will continue to be allowed provided the importer can prove the identification of the wildlife species at the time of import and the specimen meets the definition of an antique under the ESA.

Antiques made out of endangered species that are already here in the United States may continue to be sold in interstate commerce without an ESA permit provided the seller can prove that the specimen meets the definition of an antique under the ESA.

Where can antiques made of ESA-listed species be imported?
These antiques can only be imported at the following ports:  Boston, Massachusetts; New York, New York; Baltimore, Maryland; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Miami, Florida; San Juan, Puerto Rico; New Orleans, Louisiana; Houston, Texas; Los Angeles, California; San Francisco, California; Anchorage, Alaska, Honolulu, Hawaii; and Chicago, Illinois.


Hunters

How will movement of sport-hunted trophies be affected?
These administrative actions will not significantly impact the import into the United States of African elephant sport-hunted trophies. The AECA specifically allows such imports. We will limit imports to two African elephant trophies per hunter per year. This limitation will affect very few importers. 

african-elephant-walking-down-path

Credit:  Richard Ruggiero/USFWS

The special rule allows import of sport-hunted African elephant trophies from CITES Appendix-I populations without an ESA permit when certain conditions are met, including a Service determination that killing the animal will enhance survival of the species. Although these trophies will require ESA permits after removal of the special rule, the Service issues such permits based on the same information used for issuing the CITES import permit. We anticipate that the agency will be able to include the necessary ESA authorization on that document. 

Therefore, we do not expect revocation of the special rule to impact import of sport-hunted trophies from CITES Appendix-I populations. 

ESA permits will still not be required for import of sport-hunted trophies from Appendix-II African elephant populations when certain conditions are met. All imports of African elephant hunting trophies will still need to comply with relevant provisions in 50 CFR Parts 13 (general permitting) and 23 (CITES).


Ivory Carvers

How will the carving and commercial use of raw and worked ivory in the United States be affected?
After the ESA special rule for the African elephant is revoked, commercial export and interstate commerce of all non-antique African elephant ivory will be prohibited without an ESA permit. The commercial import of non-antique African elephant ivory and raw ivory is already prohibited under the 1989 AECA moratorium. The ESA also already prohibits commercial import, export and sale in interstate commerce of Asian elephant ivory without an ESA permit.
With finalization of the use-after-import provisions in our CITES regulations, African and Asian elephant ivory can only be sold within a state (intrastate commerce) when the seller can prove that the specimen was imported prior to listing of the species in CITES Appendix I or Appendix II with an annotation restricting trade in some specimens to noncommercial purposes.

Under these actions, there are no changes in requirements with respect to use and sale of other ivories, such as mammoth, walrus, hippopotamus, sperm whale or warthog.


Traders in Elephant Leather

How will the commercial use of elephant leather and other non-ivory products be affected?
The special rule allows the import and export of non-ivory African elephant products, provided the permit requirements in 50 CFR Parts 13 and 23 have been met and does not restrict interstate commerce in African elephant specimens. Commercial import, export and interstate commerce will be prohibited for non-antique items without an ESA permit when the special rule is removed. This prohibition will apply to trade in all elephant parts and products, including products made from elephant leather. Issuance of ESA permits for threatened species must be for “scientific purposes, the enhancement of propagation or survival, economic hardship, zoological exhibition, educational purposes, incidental taking, or special purposes consistent with the purposes of the Act.”


Current owners of elephant ivory, rhino horn, and other items derived from these species

How will ownership and use of personally owned item be affected?
Personal possession of elephant ivory and other materials made from endangered or threatened species that were legally acquired will remain legal. 

african-elephant-walking-down-path

Large Ivory Carving
Credit:  Rob Young CC BY 2.0

Worked African elephant ivory imported for personal use as part of a household move or as an inheritance and worked African elephant ivory imported as part of a musical instrument will continue to be allowed provided the worked ivory has not subsequently been transferred from one person to another person in pursuit of financial gain or profit and the item is accompanied by a valid CITES document.  The import of raw African elephant ivory, other than sport-hunted trophies, is prohibited.

Import and export of other ESA-listed species, such as Asian elephant or rhinoceros, for noncommercial purposes either with an ESA permit or if the specimen qualifies as pre-ESA or as an antique under the ESA may continue.

Commercial export and interstate commerce of all non-antique African elephant ivory will be prohibited without an ESA permit. The export and sale in interstate commerce of non-antique specimens of other ESA-listed species continues to be prohibited without an ESA permit.
With finalization of the amended “use-after-import” provisions in our CITES regulations, species listed in CITES Appendix I or in Appendix II with an annotation for noncommercial purposes (such as African and Asian elephant or one of the species of rhinoceros) may only be used for noncommercial purposes unless it can be proved that the specimen was imported prior to the restrictive listing.


Musicians and musical instrument manufacturers

How will the commercial and noncommercial use of musical instruments containing elephant ivory be affected?

Commercial import of musical instruments containing African elephant ivory will be prohibited. 
Commercial export and sale in interstate commerce will be prohibited without an ESA permit. 

Orchestras, professional musicians and similar entities will be allowed to import certain musical instruments containing African elephant ivory if the instruments qualify as pre-Convention and are not destined to be sold. Worked African elephant ivory imported as part of a musical instrument will continue to be allowed provided the worked ivory was legally acquired prior to February 26, 1976; the worked elephant ivory has not subsequently been transferred from one person to another person in pursuit of financial gain or profit; and the item is accompanied by a valid CITES musical instrument passport or CITES traveling exhibition certificate.

The import, export and sale in interstate commerce of non-antique specimens of other ESA-listed species continue to be prohibited without an ESA permit.  Antique musical instruments made of endangered species that are already here in the United States may continue to be sold in interstate commerce without an ESA permit provided the seller can prove the specimen meets the definition of an antique under the ESA.

With finalization of the ”use-after-import” provisions in our CITES regulations, species listed in CITES Appendix I or in Appendix II with an annotation for noncommercial purposes (such as African and Asian elephant or sea turtle) may only be used for noncommercial purposes unless  it can be proved that the specimen was imported prior to the restrictive listing.

Can ivory be imported to manufacture new musical instruments?
Our CITES regulations (50 CFR 23.55) place limits on how CITES Appendix-I and certain Appendix-II specimens may be used after import into the United States. The purpose is to prevent commercial use of specimens after import into the United States when only noncommercial trade is allowed under CITES. We are in the process of finalizing a proposed rule updating our CITES regulations, including amendments to the “use-after-import” provisions. Use after import of Appendix-I specimens is limited to noncommercial purposes except when a person can demonstrate that the specimens were imported before the species was listed in Appendix I, or they were imported under a pre-Convention certificate or other CITES exemption document.  For further information, see our answers on antiques, personally owned items and musical instruments.


Zoos, circuses, and exhibitors

How will the movement of live African elephants be affected?

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African Elephant at Nashville Zoo
Credit:  Brent Moore CC BY-NC 2.0

The special rule allows the import or export of live African elephants provided all CITES requirements are met. Interstate or foreign commerce of live African elephants is also allowed and no ESA permit is required. Revocation of the special rule would mean that all of the prohibitions and permitting requirements for threatened species will apply to live elephants.   ESA authorization would be required to conduct interstate or foreign commerce, import, export or take (within the United States) of live African elephants. Issuance of ESA permits for threatened species must be for “scientific purposes, the enhancement of propagation or survival, economic hardship, zoological exhibition or educational purposes, or incidental taking or special purposes consistent with the purposes of the Act.”


Museums and educational institutions

How will the movement of museum, educational and scientific specimens be affected?
The special rule allows the import or export of museum, educational or scientific specimens from African elephants provided all CITES requirements are met. Interstate and foreign commerce of elephant specimens is also allowed and no ESA permit is required. Revocation of the special rule would mean that all of the prohibitions and permitting requirements for threatened species would apply to these specimens. ESA authorization would be required to conduct interstate or foreign commerce, import or export of such specimens. Issuance of ESA permits for threatened species must be for “scientific purposes the enhancement of propagation or survival economic hardship zoological exhibition, or educational purposes, or incidental taking, or special purposes consistent with the purposes of the Act.” Specimens moved across state lines for non-commercial purposes do not require ESA authorization.  Specimens that qualify as pre-ESA or as antiques under the ESA also would not require ESA authorization for interstate or foreign non-commercial movements. Non-commercial loans within the United States as part of research, educational programs, or museum exhibitions would not require ESA authorization. For more information, see the information above on antiques.

Proposed changes to the AECA moratorium would allow for the continued import of worked African elephant ivory imported as part of a traveling exhibition, provided the worked ivory was legally acquired prior to February 26, 1976; the worked elephant ivory has not subsequently been transferred from one person to another person in pursuit of financial gain or profit; and the item is accompanied by a valid CITES traveling exhibition certificate.