Custom Scrimshaw by Mark Thogerson
An ancient craft on natural materials

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My letter to the Advisory Committee is below this summary. To jump directly to it, click here

Summary of the USFWS Advisory Committee on Wildlife Trafficking
from a member of the International Ivory Society:

I’m writing to you from a hotel room in Washington DC, already late for my drive back home.  Before I hit the road, I want to share with you what happened yesterday at the subject meeting.  I’ll provide more details when I get back, but here are the high points:
The Bad News
1.      Special interest groups are already lobbying Congress to rush changes to the law that will create SEVERE penalties for anyone involved with wildlife trafficking, which will include Domestic Ivory Trade under current proposals.  They want to make trading ivory punishable under RICO, Federal Money Laundering statutes, and the Travel Act.  These statutes would make violations of the law easier for federal authorities to prove, and the Advisory Council is arguing for increasing penalties to felonies with 5 year prison sentences.  They are also pursuing new restitution laws that will allow the government to “disgorge profits from ivory traders” and “return the money to the state or country of origin.”  Where no state or country can be identified, they want to create a new slush fund to use to enhance enforcement and conservation efforts.
2.      They are working hard to build Congressional support to push these changes through. Sen Diane Feinstein is leading the charge in the Senate. They are looking for a member of the House to lead the effort.  When talking to Congressional members, they are focusing on capturing Chinese kingpins in the poached ivory trade, so members of Congress have no idea that these laws could be used against US citizens who currently and have always abided by the law working with pre-ban ivory.
3.      Although they say their focus is on “5 or 7 Kingpins in China”, they repeatedly said the United States needs to lead the way with enforcement of a Domestic Ivory Ban to be a model for the rest of the world to emulate.  They know the real problems with illicit trade in poached ivory are in Asia, but they are frustrated by their inability to do much about it in foreign countries.  They expressed dismay over what they characterized in the United States as the lowest number of prosecutions in wildlife trafficking in the world, and concern that typical US prison sentences were only 2 months of incarceration.  The enforcement advocates clearly want more money and manpower to prosecute many more people in the US to drive up their statistics to “impress other countries.”  Since there is no poaching taking place in the US and USFWS has been effective at keeping poached ivory out of our country, who do you think they will go after?
4.      The Advisory Council is advocating for measures to reduce demand for ivory worldwide and “change people’s behavior” through advertising campaigns and enlisting Hollywood celebrities.  They compared what is currently legal ivory trade to smoking and illegal drug trades (repeatedly).
5.      The Advisory Council is also advocating for public/private partnerships with corporations and non-governmental organizations to help inform them what can be done to fight wildlife trafficking, which would include domestic ivory trade if they get their way.  They talked about eBay, Coke, Pepsi and other companies that they’d like to see help them.  AT NO TIME DID THEY TALK ABOUT PARTNERING WITH ANYONE WHO DEALS WITH LEGAL IVORY IN THE US, AND IT IS CLEAR THEY HAVE MADE NO EFFORT TO REACH OUT TO LEGAL USERS OF IVORY TO SOLICIT THEIR INPUT.
The Good  News
1.      The Advisory Council was largely ignorant about the legal use of domestic ivory, and they expressed surprise and concern about the number of people who wrote in expressing concern leading up to this meeting.  Clearly, they see serious potential political problems if the legal ivory trade organizes to oppose this ban.  I challenged them directly on their failure to include people who deal with legal ivory in their deliberations and proposals
2.      One of the key members of the Council advocating for changes in the law admitted to me that the Ivory Ban “came down from above” and the he had not even read the domestic ivory ban proposals until shortly before this meeting.  He said to me after the meeting concluded that the proposed ban was extremely broad and he understands why people working with Ivory today are in a panic.
3.      There were about 25 people who came out to comment about the Ivory Ban, and about half spoke eloquently about reasons to oppose or soften the ban.  Representatives of musical instrument dealers, orchestras, auctioneers, antique  collectors, knife dealers and scrimshaw artists stood up and told the Council the Draconian impact that the ban would have on their lives without saving a single African elephant.  The Council was clearly attentive and concerned about their comments.  There were also animal rights activists who made comments, some of which were quite extreme (i.e. elephants are “more evolved than humans” and “all ivory comes from poached elephants”).  The Activist’s comments spoke for themselves and added nothing new to the discussion.
4.      Sandra Brady’s comments stood out from the others.  Sandra captured how the current legal system has failed to prevent poaching and the futility of a domestic ban on that objective.  She also did a great job personalizing the devastating impact on small businesses and the lives of artists, artisans and collectors who have always complied with the law and who share the goal of ending the slaughter of poached elephants.
Bottom Line – we haven’t stopped the Domestic Ivory Ban freight train, but we may have slowed it down. By the end of the meeting, Advisory Council members acknowledged that the Domestic Ivory Ban posed genuine problems and political challenges.  They noted that everyone agreed on measures they want to take to stop illegal poaching (prosecuting poachers and traffickers of poached ivory), and but for the Domestic Ivory Ban their proposals would not be controversial.
The timing of new rules is not yet clear.  There will be something published in the next few weeks addressing CITES that possibly could include revocation of an existing special rule under the Environmental Species Act.  This could set up a legal framework prohibiting interstate trade of ivory.  They said to expect a 30 day comment period on that rule.
The “final rule” should come out in June, after which there will be a comment period.  We specifically asked that these rules not be issued as “interim final rules” which would go into effect immediately, and instead asked that any rules published be subject to comment before they can be enforced.  I think we have a good chance of getting this because of the wide ranging concerns raised, but nothing is guaranteed.
What you need to do
1.      Call your Congressman and Senators TODAY! Activist groups are already lobbying Congressmen heavily, and they are totally misrepresenting what the regulations and legal changes will do to you.  You need to inform them about what the proposed changes in the law will do to you, your collections, your businesses, and your families.  The message is simple – We all want to stop elephant poaching, but these laws punish innocent Americans, not elephant poachers or illegal traders in Asia.
2.      Call your trade organizations and make sure they are representing you.  Groups like the NRA, AARP, collectors associations, professional associations, knife clubs, gun clubs, industry lobbying groups – all of them need to hear from you and be educated about the severity of this threat.  These calls have a multiplier effect when they lead back to law makers, and they are starting to get people’s attention!
3.      Spread the word on social media. Use Facebook, Twitter, e-mail lists, internet forums, and all the ways you communicate people to spread the word about what the government is doing and why the Domestic Ivory Ban is a very bad idea.
Rob Mitchell
Corr Mitchell LLC

My letter to the Advisory Committee on Wildlife Trafficking:

March 17, 2014
Cade London
Special Assistant, USFWS International Affairs
Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking
4401 North Fairfax Drive, Room 110
Arlington, VA 22203

To the Wildlife Trafficking Advisory Council:
You need to reconsider a total ban on elephant ivory sales in the United States. Instead of banning the sale of elephant ivory outright, more effort should go into enforcement of current laws and regulations, and logistical support of our African partners in an effort to save the two species of African elephant from extinction. Some of the reasons for not banning commerce in elephant ivory include legality and enforcement issues, the effect it will have on worldwide ivory prices and illicit trade, and the effect it will have on the elephants themselves.

Ivory of one sort or another has been part of human culture for thousands of years. Some of the earliest known 3-dimensional artworks (“Venus” figurines) are carved in ivory. It has been used for functional and decorative items ever since, and people treasure it. By banning ivory sales and other transfers, these items will be rendered worthless. Americans will not sit idly by while the value of their investments is nullified. If you are determined in your present course, you must consider just compensation, just as if the government wanted to put a road through someone’s house. This qualifies as a “taking” under the Fifth Amendment, and you can bet that someone will have the resources to take it to the Supreme Court if necessary. In addition to its unconstitutionality, it would become an enforcement nightmare, taking valuable personnel away from protecting our own native endangered species. By criminalizing otherwise law-abiding citizens, this action would actually increase illicit trade in ivory which, by a statement issued by the USFWS in 2012, is nearly nonexistent. Additionally, the exception to allow people to import up to two trophy elephants per year is ludicrous. How are the hunters or their heirs supposed to dispose of these? Their sale or transfer would be illegal! One could say you are ignoring the elephant in the room…

I am a scrimshander, and use almost exclusively “fossil” ivories – mammoth and old walrus ivories, as well as repurposing old piano keys. Even though these sources would be allowable under the proposed regulation, I am afraid that my stock may be confiscated under the assumption that it is fresh elephant ivory. I have been practicing my craft since before the ban on whale hunting. Maybe you should examine how that was handled – it was a much more measured approach. Hunting of all cetacean species and import of whale products was banned in 1974. A 5-year grace period allowed sale of items such as whale teeth so that dealers wouldn’t be left holding the bag. After that, a limited number of permits were issued, allowing certain dealers to engage in commerce of these beautifully carved or scrimshawed items. Under that management plan, populations of the most critically endangered species – sperm and humpback whales – have risen sharply in the last 40 years. A similar plan could work to the elephants’ advantage. Import of elephant ivory has been banned for over 20 years per the CITES treaty, and illicit trade is virtually nonexistent in the USA. The cessation of trade will not save one African elephant alive today, and may actually doom them to extinction, as I will explain in the following paragraphs.

Banning trade in the USA, as well as destruction of ivory, may make people here feel they have the “moral high ground”, but it also sends the wrong message to the wrong people. Making all ivory in the USA worthless, or destroying it, just makes its value greater elsewhere. Demand stays the same in the orient, where people are told that the tusks “just drop off”, but the supply has been decreased. Any freshman economics student will tell you the price will increase, and that will make poaching more lucrative. I’m sure that speculators in China and elsewhere are already buying up ivory, banking on the elephant’s extinction. Ivory prices would soar, making it worthwhile to develop black market trade networks and production of fake documentation here as well.

In addition to my hobby as a scrimshander, I am a biology professor at a state university with a specialty in animal population dynamics modeling and ecology. I was surprised and dismayed to find that there are no large-animal population ecologists on the Advisory Panel. They could tell you that the recent sharp decline in elephant populations could be temporary – all you have to do is make it too difficult for the poachers to operate. If elephant stocks were managed effectively in a manner similar to the way we manage our continent’s largest herbivore, the bison, indigenous people would begin to see that it could be to their advantage to protect elephants, rather than greet the poachers with open arms. It could be a source of income to them. Also, elephant populations won’t dwindle as quickly as some doomsayers predict. The poachers are going after males first, because their tusks are up to 3 times the size of the females’ tusks. Since elephants are promiscuous, you only really need one male for as many as 200 females to be reasonably sure that most of the cows of reproductive age are either pregnant or nursing. Their basic reproductive biology is similar to humans: females become reproductive between 12 and 15 years of age, and stop at about age 50. Their time between pregnancies is a bit greater – 4.5 to 5 years – because the gestation time is 19 months and they don’t go into estrus again until they have stopped nursing. Mortality of infants and adolescents is roughly similar to that of humans in the USA in 1900, because aunties actively protect and nurture the young. Under reasonably good conditions an elephant population could double in under 40 years. The biggest long-term threat to elephants is not poaching, but increase in human populations in their native range. In order to feed their families, African farmers and herdsmen are forced into areas where conflict with elephants is much more likely: the traditional grazing areas and migration routes of the elephants. Of course, this opens a whole other can of worms, and most people are not prepared or willing to deal with it.

To reiterate, banning domestic commerce in elephant ivory will not save a single elephant alive today, since nearly all of the ivory here entered before the 1989 ban on international trade. It would effectively criminalize hundreds of thousands of Americans and is unconstitutional. It would put a heavy strain on the enforcement capabilities of the USFWS, possibly putting some of our rare native species at greater risk. It would not only drive up international ivory prices (making poaching more lucrative), but it would also foster illicit trade, and development of organized black market trade here, much as Prohibition fostered the growth of organized crime. Most importantly, it would affect elephant populations negatively. Higher black market prices will drive speculation on elephant ivory, which will eventually doom the species. Treating existing ivory as a commodity and managing elephant herds for a consistent supply is a much better way to discourage poaching.

Respectfully submitted,

Mark Thogerson, Ph.D., scrimshander and population biologist
875 Carlton St.
Muskegon, MI 49442