There aren’t a lot of large wild mammals in the islands, but elephants have a notable connection to Hawaii — or rather, their tusks do.

The U.S. is the world’s second largest national market for ivory after China, and Hawaii is America’s third largest consumer of ivory — after New York and California, according to extensive research by the Humane Society of the United States.

The outsized market for ivory in Hawaii is part of why wildlife advocates and lawmakers in the state are working to ban the sale of ivory from elephants, as well as from hippopotamuses, walruses, whales, narwhals and even extinct mammoths. Most ivory reaching the market these days comes from central Africa, where poachers kill elephants or hack off the tusks of live pachyderms.

The Hawaii Senate Ways and Means Committee unanimously passed a bill on March 28 that would criminalize the commercial sale of ivory in the state, with certain exemptions. Under House Bill 493 a first violation would be a misdemeanor, but a second one would be a felony.

The next stop for HB 493 is a full Senate vote, then the measure will be in a position to cross over to the House, after which both the House and Senate would likely go to conference committee in mid-April.

Inga Gibson, Hawaii’s senior director at the Humane Society of the United States, believes Hawaii can be at the forefront of efforts to end the ivory trade.

‘White Gold’

The ivory trade is valued at between $7 billion and $10 billion a year, creating enormous financial temptations for poachers, especially in some impoverished regions where elephants live, but also for dealers of “white gold” around the world.

In 2012, 35,000 elephants are estimated to have been killed, marking their bloodiest year, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. That adds up to nearly 100 elephants eliminated per day in Africa alone; that’s one dead elephant every 15 minutes.

Ivory Jewelry

US Fish and Wildlife Service

Jewelry and trinkets made out of ivory.

Tusks and other pieces of ivory are usually carved into jewelry, figurines and other trinkets that can fetch high prices. Research by the Humane Society found ivory products in the U.S. that range in price from $45 to $35,000.

There are an estimated 450,000 or so African elephants alive today, with another 35,000 or so elephants in Asia.

“I’m hopeful that the state sees its role in this trade that’s driving the extinction of these amazing, magnificent, sentient animals,” Gibson said.

Hawaii’s proposed law won’t affect privately owned ivory that was purchased legally. It targets the sale of undocumented ivory.

With proper documentation, the sale of antique ivory that is more than 100 years old would still be permitted, as would the sale of items made from African elephants as long as they were legally obtained prior to 1990 and from Asian elephants before 1975. Those were the years when the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned the international trade of ivory for Asian and then African elephants.

The sale of whale and walrus ivory obtained before 1972, which is when the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act was enacted — would still be permitted with proper documentation, too.

Ivory owned by Native Hawaiians or that makes up family heirlooms would also be exempt.

Museums or other places where ivory is displayed for educational or research purposes would not be affected, nor would appraisers.

The bill wouldn’t go into effect until July 1, 2015, giving ivory sellers and antique collectors time to get proper documentation, if they don’t have it already.

Gibson believes the bill is a good compromise; the exemptions were put in to appease jewelers and antique collectors. “If they really understand that this is what’s necessary to save the species, they should support the measure,” she said. “It will not negatively impact those retailers that maintain their items in compliance.”

The introduction of the legislation followed Senate Concurrent Resolution 149, which was unanimously passed last year. SCR 149 essentially called on Hawaii residents and businesses to not buy or sell ivory of illegal or uncertain origin, but resolutions are not legally binding so, not surprisingly, ivory sales continued.

An investigation in 2013 by the Humane Society of the United States, which followed up on others in 2002 and 2008, found that nearly 90 percent of ivory items sold in Hawaii are likely of illegal or uncertain origin.

Federal Protection

The proposed law comes after the United States Fish & Wildlife Service issued a ban on the commercial trade of elephant ivory in February as part of the National Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking.

The federal law would ban the commercial import, export and sale of ivory, with certain exceptions. Sellers must have documentation from the U.S. government or a foreign government that shows an item was imported before 1990 for African elephants and 1975 for Asian elephants, and all commercial imports of African elephant ivory, including antiques, and most exports, except for antiques and certain noncommercial items, are banned.

Hawaii’s proposed law is meant to be complementary to the national ban.

Asian Elephant

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

An Asian elephant at the Honolulu Zoo on March 31, 2014.

President Barack Obama said in a 2013 speech in the east African nation of Tanzania, “The entire world has a stake in protecting the world’s iconic animals, and the United States is strongly committed to meeting its obligation to help preserve the Earth’s natural beauty for future generations.”

But, it is up to the states, not the federal government, to regulate in-state sales, which is why advocates and conservation groups say state laws are still needed.

Hawaii’s House companion measure, HB 2183 House Draft 1, was introduced by Rep. Karl Rhoads, and co-sponsored by 19 other members of the House.

“Elephants are on the brink of extinction, and I thought we should do our small part in ending the ivory trade,” Rhoads told Civil Beat to explain why he thinks the bill is important.

While that bill stalled, advocates are hopeful HB 493 SD1 won’t suffer the same fate. The two measures received nearly 500 pieces of supportive testimony from all over the world.

“It’s the sale of these products that is driving their continued poaching,” Gibson said. “We believe stopping supply, stopping the ability for people to purchase or sell illegal ivory, is the best way to protect this species from extinction.”

The Department of Land and Natural Resources, the state enforcement agency, testified in support of the bill.

Chairperson William J. Aila, Jr. wrote, “Without laboratory analysis, it is impossible to identify ivory as to its age or even the animal type, especially if the ivory has already been carved. … The Department believes that the extinction of these magnificent animals is imminent if we do not halt the ivory trade by passing these laws.”

A similar bill is advancing in the Legislature of New York, which has the nation’s biggest ivory market, although Hawaii’s legislation is further along.

If the current version of Hawaii’s law passes, the state would have the strongest law in the country. “It’s definitely going to have an impact on the direct killing of elephants by reducing the supply and demand,” Gibson said.

A Species in Decline

While there were once thousands of varieties and herds of elephants roaming the planet, there are now only two species left, the African and Asian elephants. Many Asian elephants are tuskless, partly as a result of hunting. Some forecasts say the creatures will be extinct on both continents within the next 10 to 15 years — if the killing rate remains the same.

Last year, the Clinton Global Initiative announced a three-year $80 million Commitment to Action to end the poaching and slaughter of elephants in Africa, noting that the populations have shrunk by about 75 percent over the last 12 years.

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