Working with the antique trade to change the law on ivory
For the rest of this series of Life Solved, we’re delving into the world of wildlife crime.
The University of Portsmouth is addressing the illegal trade in animals and plants through cutting-edge research and real-world application. This time Caroline Cox explains how her work led her to providing vital information to support a change in the law here in the UK.
In this episode, she explains how they interviewed antique dealers to better understand the issues and ended up creating a body of work of international importance.
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Legislation that needed updating
Caroline's a Senior Lecturer in Law. She saw a problem in the UK legislation around the trade in ivory, which was potentially encouraging a bigger problem in elephant poaching globally. It was also creating problems for dealers who were at risk of unwittingly breaking the law. Legislation stated that you couldn't sell ivory or unworked ivory from an elephant that had died before 1947. This led to several court cases:
The legislation was very complicated. How do you know whether a tusk that you're selling has come from an elephant that died before or after the cut-off date? How do you say whether that item is worked or not worked?
Experts in the trade of antique ivory
Caroline teamed up with Nick Pamment, who set up the University’s Wildlife Crime module. With his forensic background and Caroline’s passion for law and antiques, they began to survey members of the trade about their practices.
Getting people to talk about potentially illegal practices for a consultation that could damage their trade wasn’t easy, but with the support of national antique organisations, Caroline was able to gather a huge amount of information and become a leading expert in this area.
The Ivory Project
And Caroline wasn’t the only one concerned at how loopholes in ivory law were encouraging the present-day slaughter of elephants.
In the same year that my first report was published, Prince William was on a stand at the London Wildlife Conference saying: ‘we've got to stop this. It's got to come to an end’. And of course, if somebody like that, with all of his influence speaks out, the government listens.
Government action followed and momentum was suddenly on the rise. Caroline and Nick’s work was formalised under the title The Ivory Project. Before they knew it, they talked to members of wildlife organisations, government, and elephant welfare organisations to understand how the problematic ivory legislation connected to global Wildlife Crime.
In 2018 the world-leading Ivory Act was passed, banning the trade in ivory with the exception of 5 rigorously debated categories, including musical instruments where less than 20 per cent of the volume is ivory:
If you think about a piano before 1975, most pianos had ivory keys. And there are an awful lot of pianos out there right now being used. So 20 per cent equates effectively to the keys on the piano
The act also still permits the trade of ivory in some works of art, miniatures and important cultural items, but it’s changed the landscape for many dealers and put an end to intentional lawbreaking.
The Ivory Act is currently undergoing secondary legislation before it commences and hopefully puts an end to the UK’s role in ivory poaching for good.