Hawaii’s black market ivory trade is thriving online, in stores and at swap meets, animal activist groups claimed Thursday.

Federal law dictates ivory sales are legal only if the item was created before the species the product was made from became endangered. For products made from the tusks of African elephants, which are heavily poached for ivory, anything created after 1976 is illegal.

A report compiled by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Wildlife Conservation Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and Humane Society International surveyed 47 online ivory sellers in Hawaii over six days last December. Investigators found few online sellers offered legal documentation and only one uploaded a picture of its certification.

Activists at the capitol held paintings by local artist Patricia Missler that depicted 96 pink dots — one for each elephant killed on average per day.
Activists at the Capitol held paintings by local artist Patricia Missler that depicted 96 pink dots — one for each elephant killed on average per day. Courtney Teague/Civil Beat

Wildlife conservationists held a press conference at the State Capitol Thursday to release the report’s findings and voice support for House Bill 2502 and Senate Bill 2647, which aim to crack down on ivory sales in the state’s black market.

Investigators found 1,862 active advertisements for wildlife products and a total 4,661 items for sale, according to the report. The biggest online retailer had an inventory worth more than $574,000 in ivory products, while another three sellers had inventories worth more than $100,000.

Jewelry sales comprised about 94 percent of the online stock, according to the report. Statues and other home decorations made up the rest of the inventory.

The African forest elephant population, a species often hunted for its ivory alone, has decreased by 65 percent since 2002, according to the report. If the trend of ivory sales continue at the same rate, the species will be extinct within a decade.

The legislative bills currently under consideration would regulate the sale of parts and products of any endangered animal species. While elephants are the most common source of ivory trinkets, whales, walruses and rhinoceroses also have been hunted for ivory.

Hawaii will host the International Union for the Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress in September, and the bills urge the state to be a leader on the issue.

The sale of shark teeth from endangered species and mammoth products would also be prohibited. The last of the mammoths died several thousand years ago.

Exceptions would be made for items that have documents proving they are at least 100 years old, are made of less than 20 percent ivory (including legally possessed guns and knives) or are used for educational purposes.

Ivory items received through inheritance or used for Native Hawaiian cultural practices would also be permitted.

Federal regulations are in place, but don’t prohibit sales within a state. Experts theorize this has made it easier for the black market to exist so smoothly alongside legal trade.

The other top ivory market states – New York and California  – have passed laws over the last two years that make it easier for local law enforcement to take action on illegal sales.

Hawaii now is the largest U.S. market that hasn’t banned ivory sales, experts say.

On the black market, just over 2 pounds of ivory can fetch $2,000, according to the Conservation Council for Hawaii.

“The research clearly shows that Hawaii’s illegal ivory trade market is thriving,” said Sara Marinello, executive director of government and community affairs at WCS. “Hawaii is poised to prove to the world that relatively small islands can do big things for our planet’s future.”

Nearly half of the retailers surveyed in the report were on Oahu. Conservationists say tourists, who may be unaware of federal regulations, are often targeted in these sales.

Actress Kristin Bauer van Straten participated in the press conference.

She’s best known as the 160-year-old vampire on HBO’s “True Blood.”

“When we travel, we want to take home something special,” she said. “So unknowingly, some of us take home something that actually contributes to the problem.”

Bauer van Straten advised tourists to play it safe and avoid purchasing animal products altogether.

Although they focused on Hawaii on Thursday, speakers said the problem is international. 

Ivory prices have increased over the past decade, according to the report. In Asian countries, ivory has a greater cultural value, but the U.S. also plays a big role in the trade.

Activists argued the threat to affected animal species is far more important than being able to buy the highly-valued jewelry and trinkets.

A good reason not to give

We know not everyone can afford to pay for news right now, which is why we keep our journalism free for everyone to read, listen, watch and share. 

But that promise wouldn’t be possible without support from loyal readers like you.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help keep our journalism free for all readers. And if you’re able, consider a sustaining monthly gift to support our work all year-round.



About the Author