Ivory trade: UK set to crack down with new laws to protect elephants

Last updated at 09:50
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The tough UK laws planned to help protect elephants (April 2018)

The UK is one step closer to introducing some of the toughest rules in the world around the ivory trade in the UK.

A law called the Ivory Bill is being introduced to Parliament today - and it aims to make it illegal to buy or sell almost all ivory in the UK.

It is currently legal to buy and cell certain kinds.

According to the government, the new rules would be "the toughest in Europe - and one of the toughest in the world" and are being introduced as part of the government's plans to do more to protect the world's elephants.

What is the state of the ivory trade at the moment?

The ivory trade is the name given to the buying and selling of ivory.

Ivory - the hard white material that some animals' teeth and tusks are made from - is extremely valuable.

Some ivory that is bought and sold may be legal, like antique ivory or selling certain kinds within countries.

Ivory productsReuters
Ivory products can be extremely valuable

But some of the ivory trade is completely illegal. For example, there is an international ban on buying and selling it across borders.

Because ivory is such a valuable product, poachers kill elephants for their valuable tusks. This is also completely illegal.

The problem is, it can be hard to know what ivory is legal and what is illegal.

Over the last 10 years, the number of elephants in the world has gone down by almost a third. About 20,000 are still killed every single year because of this. That's around 55 elephants every single day.

Many countries around the world are recognising the impact that the ivory trade - whether legal or illegal - is having on the world's elephants, and are making moves to address this problem by making the rules around what ivory can and can't be sold more strict.

Find out lots more about the ivory trade by clicking here.

Ivory burningReuters
Some countries have stores of old ivory which they are burning, even though it is very valuable, to show they are serious about tackling the ivory trade
Why does the government want change?

Last year, the government did a big piece of work to find out what people really thought about the current rules.

More than 70,000 people and organisations shared their thoughts and almost 9 in 10 (88%) said they were in favour of a complete ban on ivory sales in the UK.

Environment secretary Michael Gove, who will be introducing the new law to Parliament, says: "Elephants are one of the world's most iconic animals and we must do all we can to protect them for future generations."

He said the government believes the ivory trade should become "a thing of the past".

What does this new law say?

The new law being introduced to Parliament today will relate to the sale of all ivory - no matter how old it is, even if it is considered to be an antique (which is currently allowed to be sold).

Banning the sale of all ivory like this makes the rules much stricter than they were before.

Ivory tusks on displayGetty Images
The government hopes to make it illegal to trade almost all ivory in the UK - regardless of how old it is

There will be some types of ivory that would still be allowed to be traded though, as the government says these do not contribute to elephant poaching. These are:

  • Items with only a small amount of ivory (less than 10% and they must have been made before 1947)
  • Musical instruments (these must be less than 20% ivory and have been made before 1975)
  • Portrait miniatures, which were often painted on thin pieces of ivory (although these must be at least 100 years old)
  • Items of "outstanding artistic, cultural or historic significance" which are at least 100 years old, and which have been made before 1918 - these will need to be assessed by experts
  • Sales to and between special museums - the organisations which can decide these museums are the Arts Council England, the Welsh Government, Museums and Galleries Scotland or the Northern Ireland Museums Council in the UK, or the International Council of Museums outside of the UK

The maximum penalty for breaking the new rules would be an unlimited fine or up to five years in jail.

What has the response been?

People who work to protect elephants are very pleased that the government is doing this and hope that other countries will follow the UK's example.

Charlie Mayhew - the boss of an organisation called Tusk Trust, which works to protect African wildlife - says: "The ban will ensure there is no value for modern-day ivory and the tusks of recently poached elephants cannot enter the UK market."

"Ivory belongs on an elephant and when the buying stops, the killing will stop," added John Stephenson, the boss of Stop Ivory, which also works to protect elephants.

Organisations which work to protect elephants are welcoming the proposed changes to make the laws around the ivory trade in the UK stricter

Not everybody feels positive about the new rules though - although the research shows these people are in the minority.

Some people believe that introducing more rules like this will actually make the value of ivory go up, which would encourage more poaching.

Others think the rules in place at the moment are enough - but they just need to be enforced better. There are also concerns about the effect that new rules like this could have on the trade of antiques and arts.

PianoGetty Images
The keys on old pianos can be made out of ivory

Some aren't happy with the rules because they don't agree with the list of ivory which will still be allowed.

For example, half the people who responded said they don't think musical instruments should be included in this list, and the same number disagreed with excluding items of "outstanding artistic, cultural or historic significance".

Less than 5% of the people who responded to the government's research said they were against the new rules (and just over 8% did not express an opinion either way).

Now, the world will be waiting to see what Parliament has to say.

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