Sunday, July 7, 2024

In which countries is ivory legal?

Ivory, a material derived from the tusks of elephants and other animals, has a long history of being prized for its beauty and utility. Its legality varies significantly around the globe due to conservation efforts, international agreements, and national laws. Understanding where ivory is legal involves a complex web of regulations, cultural practices, and enforcement challenges. This article explores the legal landscape of ivory, detailing where it is permitted and the factors influencing these legalities.

The Global Context of Ivory Trade

Ivory has been used for centuries in art, jewelry, religious artifacts, and everyday items. However, the demand for ivory has led to the severe decline of elephant populations, prompting international efforts to curb the trade. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), established in 1975, is a pivotal agreement influencing the legality of ivory worldwide. CITES lists elephants in Appendix I, which prohibits international trade except under exceptional circumstances, and Appendix II, which allows regulated trade under certain conditions. Most countries adhere to CITES regulations, significantly impacting the global ivory market.

Countries Where Ivory Trade is Strictly Prohibited

Many nations have enacted stringent laws that make the trade, sale, and possession of ivory illegal. The United States, for instance, has implemented one of the most comprehensive bans. The 2016 near-total ban on commercial ivory trade under the Endangered Species Act only allows very limited exceptions, such as antiques over 100 years old with documented provenance.

In Europe, the United Kingdom introduced a near-total ban on ivory sales in 2018, which came into full effect in 2021. This ban includes items of any age, with narrow exemptions for musical instruments, items of significant artistic, cultural, or historical value, and a few other specified categories. The European Union also strengthened its regulations, significantly restricting ivory trade across member states.

Australia and New Zealand have similar prohibitions, aligning closely with international conservation efforts. These countries have recognized the critical need to protect endangered species and have taken steps to eliminate their domestic markets for ivory.

Countries with Partial Ivory Bans

Some countries have opted for partial bans, allowing certain types of ivory transactions while prohibiting others. Japan, for example, permits the domestic trade of antique ivory but requires that such items be registered. The Japanese government mandates strict record-keeping and proof of origin to prevent illegal ivory from entering the market. Critics argue that these regulations are not stringent enough and have called for a complete ban.

China, historically the largest consumer of ivory, implemented a landmark ban on the domestic ivory trade in 2017. However, this ban does not extend to Hong Kong, which has a separate legal system. Hong Kong has its own phased plan to cease all ivory sales by 2021, but until then, certain sales remained legal under specific conditions.

See Also: Can Ivory Be Appraised?

Countries with Legal Ivory Markets

Despite global efforts to curb the ivory trade, some countries still have legal markets, often heavily regulated. Thailand, for example, allows the sale of ivory obtained from domesticated elephants, a unique legal distinction that has raised concerns among conservationists about the potential for laundering illegal ivory.

In Africa, where most of the world’s elephants are found, the situation is varied. Countries like Namibia and Zimbabwe advocate for a regulated legal trade, arguing that sustainable use of ivory could fund conservation efforts and benefit local communities. These nations propose that revenue from controlled ivory sales can be reinvested into wildlife management and anti-poaching measures. Despite these arguments, the international community remains divided, and CITES has consistently upheld the international ban on ivory trade.

The Role of Enforcement and Corruption

Legal frameworks alone are not sufficient to protect elephants; effective enforcement is crucial. In many countries where ivory trade is legal under specific conditions, corruption and weak enforcement undermine these regulations. For instance, in some African nations, poorly regulated domestic markets and lack of resources for law enforcement lead to illegal ivory being laundered through legal channels.

In Asia, countries like Laos and Vietnam have been identified as significant transit points for illegal ivory, despite official bans. Enforcement is hampered by porous borders, limited governmental oversight, and corruption, allowing traffickers to exploit these weaknesses.

The Impact of Cultural Factors

Cultural attitudes towards ivory also play a significant role in its legal status. In many Asian countries, ivory carving is an ancient art form, deeply ingrained in cultural heritage. Efforts to ban ivory trade often face resistance from artisans and communities who view such measures as threats to their traditions and livelihoods. Balancing cultural preservation with conservation needs is a delicate task that requires sensitive and inclusive policy-making.

International Cooperation and Future Outlook

The future of ivory trade and its legal status will likely hinge on international cooperation and continued pressure from conservation groups. CITES remains a central mechanism for coordinating global efforts, but its effectiveness depends on the commitment of member countries to implement and enforce its provisions.

Recent years have seen increased global awareness and stronger legal measures against ivory trade. Public campaigns and media coverage have brought the plight of elephants into the spotlight, leading to greater consumer awareness and decreased demand for ivory products.

Technological Advances and Their Role

Technological advancements are playing an increasingly important role in combatting illegal ivory trade. DNA analysis, for example, helps trace the geographic origin of ivory, aiding law enforcement in tracking poaching hotspots and trafficking routes. Satellite tracking and surveillance drones are being employed to monitor elephant populations and detect poaching activities in real-time.

Blockchain technology is also being explored to create transparent and tamper-proof records of ivory stockpiles and transactions, potentially reducing the risk of illegal ivory entering the market.


The legality of ivory is a complex and dynamic issue shaped by international agreements, national laws, enforcement capabilities, cultural factors, and technological advancements. While significant progress has been made in reducing the global ivory trade, challenges remain, particularly in countries where legal markets still exist or enforcement is weak. Continued international cooperation, innovative technologies, and robust enforcement are essential to ensure the survival of elephant populations and the eventual eradication of illegal ivory trade.

Understanding where ivory is legal helps in appreciating the broader context of wildlife conservation and the ongoing efforts to protect endangered species from exploitation. The journey towards a world where elephants and other ivory-bearing animals are safe from poaching and illegal trade is far from over, but with sustained efforts, significant strides can be made.

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