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Hawaii has African elephant blood on its hands, and some say the only way to wash it off is for state lawmakers to ban the sale of ivory here.
On Monday, the Humane Society of the United States held a forum at the state Capitol to talk to lawmakers about passing a prohibition during the 2016 legislative session.
The organization has been pushing for a Hawaii sales ban for at least the past two years to help curb the rampant slaughter of African elephants and other species, such as whales and walruses, that are sought after by poachers for their ivory.
The U.S. is second only to China in its demand for “white gold.” And Hawaii is the third-largest market in the country behind New York and California, two states that recently passed sales bans. The concern now is that with those bans in place, Hawaii will become the new No. 1.
“There’s no question that we’re a massive market,” said Inga Gibson, senior director of the Hawaii office of the Humane Society of the United States. “There’s no question there’s a lot of ivory out there. And a lot of it is brand spanking new.”
The Humane Society for the United States is mainly concerned with undocumented ivory that could have been obtained after bans implemented in the 1970s and 1980s that prohibited the future trade of elephant tusks and other wildlife products.
Ivory is sold in many locations throughout Hawaii, typically as jewelry or other hand-carved trinkets. But it’s difficult know whether it is legal without proper documentation proving that it is an antique or was obtained before federal and international trade bans took effect.
“There’s no question that we’re a massive market. There’s no question there’s a lot of ivory out there. And a lot of it is brand spanking new.” — Inga Gibson, Hawaii office of the Humane Society of the United States
In fact, the Humane Society of the United States estimates that nearly 90 percent of the ivory for sale in Hawaii is of undocumented or illegal origin. That’s why Gibson says it’s important to have a statewide ban on the sale of ivory.
“Every state has a role to play,” Gibson said. “This isn’t China’s problem. This isn’t Africa’s problem.”
A recent indictment highlights just how prescient the ivory trade is in Hawaii. In June, federal agents busted several people associated with Hawaiian Accessories, a local jewelry store with locations in Waikiki and Ala Moana Center, for allegedly smuggling raw ivory into the state.
According to the June indictment, associates of Hawaiian Accessories shipped raw walrus tusk and sperm whale teeth into Hawaii from Alaska. From here the ivory was sent to the Philippines, where it was crafted into traditional Hawaiian fish hooks.
The indictment states that when the items arrived back in Hawaii the “Made in the Philippines” stickers were removed and they were marketed as hand-crafted in Hawaii.
Keith Swindle, the resident agent in charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement in Hawaii and the Pacific Islands, briefly discussed the indictment during the meeting, and explained that the illegal ivory trade has ties to other illicit activity, including the murder of park rangers in Africa, human trafficking and even terrorism.
“It is not simply a save the elephants issue,” Swindle said. “This is about people.”
Swindle said a statewide ban on ivory sales would make it easier for his agency to bust smugglers because he would be able to go after in-state sales rather than having to prove cross-border transactions to establish his jurisdiction.
A sales ban would also allow the Hawaii Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement to commit officers to the cause. The agency, which is under the Department of Land and Natural Resources, has testified in the past in support of an ivory ban.
Swindle said much of the demand for ivory comes from Asian tourists, and particular those from China, where a burgeoning economy has led to a growing class of individuals with disposable income. Raw ivory, he said, can fetch $1,000 to $2,000 a pound, which makes it a lucrative trade.
“People aren’t bringing ivory here to sell to people in Hawaii,” Swindle said. “They’re selling it to tourists and they’re selling it to foreign nationals.”
The Humane Society of the United States wants to prohibit the sale of ivory from elephants, walruses, narwhal, whales, hippopotamuses and mammoths. It also wants to ban the sale of rhinoceros horn.
According to the nonprofit’s proposal, the ban would not apply to guns, knives and musical instruments that are made up of less than 15 percent ivory. There would also be exemptions for private or personal items that people already have in their possession or that they intend to pass down as heirlooms.
The proposals also would exempt items that are used in Native Hawaiian cultural practices and for educational or research purposes, such as items found at universities or in museums.
Several state lawmakers attended Monday’s session, including Sens. Mike Gabbard and Will Espero, and Reps. Karl Rhoads and Cynthia Thielen.
Rhoads said he supports a ban on ivory sales, but that he’s not sure how much traction it will get in the Legislature. Last year, he introduced a bill that stalled out in the Senate after passing in the house. Rhoads said that bill could be resurrected in the coming year.
He says it’s tragic to consider that African elephants could become extinct within his lifetime. Some estimates put the current rate of slaughter at 96 elephants a day.
“In my opinion, it’s definitely worth having these creatures alive running around in the wild rather than simply at the trinkets made out of their tusks,” Rhoads said.