Investigation raises concerns that Massachusetts is facilitating illegal sale of elephant ivory

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Bill hearing follows animal welfare and conservation coalition’s urging of The Massachusetts Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture to pass legislation restricting future sales, trade and distribution of ivory

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As Massachusetts legislators prepare to hear testimony on a bill to prohibit the sale of ivory and rhino horn, results from an undercover investigation raise concerns that the lack of laws to ban the ivory trade in Massachusetts is enabling the illegal trade in ivory and contributing to a dramatic decline in elephant populations. The 12-day probe by The Humane Society of the United States uncovered elephant ivory jewelry and trinkets of dubious origins for sale across the Commonwealth, from Great Barrington to the North Shore, to Boston and down to the Cape.

State Rep. Lori Ehrlich said: “This eye-opening investigation exposes the grey market that feeds demand for poaching. The $10-20 billion illegal wildlife trade globally, often linked to organized crime and terrorist groups, is just like any other business – it cannot sustain itself without customers for its illicit wares. As the seventh largest ivory market in the country, Massachusetts has a responsibility to step up. If we drag our heels any longer we risk being complicit in a senseless extinction the next generation will never understand. We have to ask ourselves what is more valuable – trinkets made of elephants or actual living elephants." 

Stephanie Harris, Massachusetts state director for The HSUS, added: “While it is distressing that our Commonwealth could be facilitating this illegal trade, it is not too late to pass legislation that will protect imperiled elephants and rhinos by removing the financial incentive to kill them and trade in their parts. Our great state does not want to condone a trade that decimates one of the most iconic species on earth.

State Sen. Jason Lewis said: “Living in South Africa until I was 12 years old, I grew up recognizing that elephants and rhinos are Africa’s natural heritage and pride, and should not be killed wantonly and reduced to trinkets, decorative items, or health tonic to satisfy one’s vanity. The fact is we, in Massachusetts, are contributing to this slaughter and bloodshed – inaction is not an option. It is incumbent upon the legislature to act swiftly so that Massachusetts does not contribute to this alarming trade. Our Commonwealth’s conservation reputation is at stake."

Significant findings during the investigation include:

  • The HSUS found nearly 700 ivory items for sale by 64 vendors in Massachusetts stores, an auction, outdoor markets and an antique festival.

  • Multiple ivory sellers deliberately mislabeled ivory items as “bone” or intentionally omitted the word “ivory” from items’ descriptions.

    • Sellers admitted that ivory “puts people off” and they “don’t want to get into trouble.” 

    • One seller offered tips for smuggling ivory out of the country, including wearing it or claiming it is bone. 

    • Other sellers offered to write misleading or false information onto sales receipts or “whatever information” the investigator wanted.

  • None of the ivory sellers could provide documentation verifying the age or origin of the ivory. Without documentation it is impossible to know whether items were imported in violation of federal law.

  • Several ivory sellers stated that they had much more ivory than what was visible in their stores but didn’t display it because they are nervous about government oversight or negative public opinion.

BACKGROUND:

  • Massachusetts has been implicated in the transnational trafficking in elephant ivory and rhino horns. In addition to the results of The HSUS investigation, a recent federal ivory trafficking case further underscores the need for legislation to crack down on the ivory trade.

  • In late July, a Boston federal court arraigned head of a wildlife smuggling ring in an alleged conspiracy to illegally export $700,000 worth of items made from rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory and coral, obtained in six U.S. states, from Concord, Massachusetts to Hong Kong.

  • A Boston Globe investigative report in 2015 found “brisk trade in illicit ivory.”

  • A  Philadelphia antique dealer, Victor Gordon, was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2014 for trafficking elephant ivory from West Africa into the U.S. for decades. He sold his illegal ivory to buyers in many states, including in Massachusetts.

  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service instituted a near-total ban on importing ivory and in the interstate trade in African elephant ivory in 2016. Last year, Congress enacted the Eliminate, Neutralize and Disrupt (END) Wildlife Trafficking Act to crack down on international wildlife trafficking. However, federal regulations do not address intrastate trade in African elephant ivory. States must also do their part to ensure that their laws sufficiently protect at-risk animals.

  • California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Washington and Nevada have passed anti-wildlife trafficking laws that are similar to the legislation The HSUS supports in Massachusetts. Voters in Oregon and Washington approved statewide ballot measures on the issue by 70-30 margins in both states.

The Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture will hear testimony on legislation to restrict the sale of ivory and rhino horn, S.450/H.419, on October 3 at 1 p.m. in the Massachusetts State House in Room B-1. In addition to The HSUS and Humane Society International, supporters of the bill include MSPCA-Angell, Zoo New England, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Wildlife Conservation Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and International Fund for Animal Welfare. Ehrlich and Lewis proposed S.450/H.419.

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