Hawaii is another step closer to banning ivory sales after Senate Bill 2647 cleared the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday in a 10-0 vote.
The bill now faces a House floor hearing. If it passes there, it would end up on Gov. David Ige’s desk.
SB 2647 would prohibit almost all sales of products made from endangered animals such as elephants, whales, walruses, some sharks and mammoths — even though mammoths have been extinct for thousands of years.
First-time offenders would be punished with a fine of at least $200 and up to a year in prison. Offenders convicted three times within five years would be fined at least $2,000 and have their contraband items confiscated by the state.
The bill makes exceptions for sales of products that are at least 100 years old and items for which endangered animal parts compose less than 20 percent. On any item sold, the bill says ivory itself cannot be the product’s principal value.
Guns, knives and musical instruments are specifically cited as needing a low percentage of ivory composition to be sold legally.
Sales for scientific, educational or Native Hawaiian cultural purposes would also be permitted.
Rep. Karl Rhoads, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, recommended that the bill acknowledge the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which protects all marine animals under federal law and would supersede the state legislation.
At the hearing, Rhoads said the majority of testimony submitted had been in favor of the bill’s passage.
On behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement, Resident Agent in Charge Keith Swindle emphasized the ivory trade’s impact on the African elephant population in testimony.
At the hearing, he said African elephant population is at risk.
Swindle said he consulted forensic experts who said it was impossible tell the age of an ivory item without destroying it — and the difference between mammoths and elephants cannot always be discerned either.
“Improved economic conditions in traditional wildlife markets such as China and other parts of East and Southeast Asia are fueling an increased demand for products derived from endangered species,” he wrote.
Suzanne Case, director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, also wrote in support of the bill and said the state’s position between the U.S. mainland and Asian countries could encourage the trafficking of wildlife species not found on the islands.
Tony Huntsiger, secretary and treasurer of the NSEFU Wildlife Conservation Foundation said at the hearing that although some people wrote in testimony about the “financial loss” the bill would cause, he felt people ought to consider the money spent on fighting poaching or given to families of people killed by poachers.
“These are the costs of not having an ivory ban. It’s impossible to tell the difference between legal and illegal ivory,” he said.
While animal activist groups and government agencies supported the bill, some private citizens and groups – including the local National Rifle Association division – submitted testimony in opposition.
“This bill would do nothing to promote its purported goal of addressing poaching and the illegal wildlife trade, while it would impose a heavy burden on law-abiding citizens,” wrote Daniel Reid, Hawaii state liaison for the NRA.
He said the bill would impact gun owners who have purchased firearms, art or knives that already have ivory features.
SB 2647 only prohibits the sale of products composed of more than 20 percent ivory, not possession.
Other testimony said the bill would make it difficult for crafts people, jewelers and small business owners to make a living.
On March 3, wildlife conservationists gathered at the Capitol to support the bill and release a report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Wildlife Conservation Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and Humane Society International that studied Hawaii’s online black market ivory trade.
Of the 47 online sellers investigated, the report found their total inventory was worth at least $1.2 million. The majority of retailers were on Oahu or Maui.
Hawaii was found to be the nation’s third-most-prominent ivory market in the U.S. behind New York and California. Both of those states have passed laws banning ivory sales, according to the report.
The report also pointed to a 2008 study that found 89 percent of ivory items for sale in Hawaii were of unknown or likely illegal origin.
An undercover study conducted by activists found that Hawaii’s ivory market was not only flourishing online, but in stores and at swap meets too.
In that investigation, shop owners even told the undercover researchers how to circumvent airport security and transport ivory into other countries.