By Marianne LeVine
In an effort to stop a recent surge in elephant poaching, states are moving to impose stricter bans on the sale of ivory, building on federal administrative actions taken this year.
New York and New Jersey have already taken steps recently to tighten restrictions on the sale of ivory, and environmental groups say their next target is California.
"We believe that California law needs to be fixed," said Elly Pepper, a policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York environmental advocacy group.
"I was in San Francisco walking down the streets and there's a shocking amount of ivory in that city, and the same is true for L.A.," she said. "A state that has such a reputation for protecting animals and wildlife should not have that much ivory on its streets."
California is the second-largest market for ivory in the U.S., after New York, with major hubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles, according to a 2008 study from Care for the Wild International, an animal-protection charity.
Although California has strict ivory laws on its books, Pepper said she is working with other groups, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, to propose legislation that would step up enforcement, increase penalties for violations and close legal loopholes.
Among the loopholes, she said, is a law permitting the sale of ivory imported prior to 1977. Pepper said it is difficult to differentiate between ivory imported before and after 1977. The council also wants to increase the minimum $1,000 fine, which Pepper said is not enough to deter smugglers.
Stricter state laws come amid a surge in elephant poaching that is threatening to drive the animal to extinction. According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, more than 100,000 elephants were killed for ivory from 2010 to 2012. The study says the proportion of illegally killed elephants has jumped from 25% to between 60% and 70% in the last 10 years.
California would be the third state to impose stricter ivory bans since a federal crackdown began in February.
The federal rules include banning all commercial imports of African elephant ivory regardless of age. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of finalizing additional rules that could ban interstate trade of ivory, with some exception for antiques, and limit the number of tusks and ivory that may be brought into the U.S. by sports hunters.
New Jersey expanded upon the federal restrictions by prohibiting the sale, purchase, barter or possession of ivory or rhino horn with limited exceptions for educational items. Antique dealers in New York can no longer sell items that are less than 100 years old and that consist of more than 20% ivory.
Some state lawmakers said the actions taken by the federal government did not go far enough.
"Right now, the federal law has too many exceptions that can easily be circumvented by those who are dealing illegal ivory here in the United States," said New Jersey state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat and primary sponsor of his state's law. "I hope this will be a model for the federal government to tighten up its loopholes."
Stricter federal and state laws have triggered a backlash among antique dealers, musicians and the National Rifle Assn. Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has made some modifications to accommodate musicians traveling with instruments containing ivory, the effect of the stricter state laws has fueled concerns.
"The NRA is deeply concerned with the Obama administration's anticipated rule and the actions taken by New York and New Jersey to effectively ban the sale and trade of legally owned pre-ban ivory," said Catherine Mortensen, an NRA spokesperson. "Consequently, many priceless personal effects will be rendered valueless."
Antique dealers in particular are concerned about stricter state laws.
"I think the conservation groups want every state in the union to pass a law," said Clinton Howell, president of the Art and Antique Dealers League of America. "I wish they would take a moment to try to understand that what we are doing has absolutely no impact [on the ivory trade]."
Antique dealers insist there is a clear distinction between old ivory and new ivory, but environmental groups say new ivory often comes into the U.S. under the guise of antique ivory.
"The problem is no one knows what's legal and what's illegal unless you're a true expert," said Gina Kinzley, lead elephant keeper at the Oakland Zoo. "There are actually places that will put a stain on the illegal stuff to make it look antique."
Kinzley expects a backlash if a new bill is introduced in California, which she hopes will occur next year. But she remains optimistic.
"New Jersey was the first state to pass the bill, California will hopefully be the third," she said. "You're seeing the domino effect of state by state passing a moratorium on the ivory trade."