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Why U.S. rules aren’t stopping illegal ivory trade at home

Much of the money made from the illegal global ivory trade funds global terrorism and criminal networks. Judy Woodruff talks to the NewsHour’s P.J. Tobia about illicit ivory sales in the U.S. and how hard it is to regulate.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It's a global crisis years in the making, poachers killing African elephants, a species on the verge of extinction, faster than they can reproduce.

    Much of the money from the ivory trade goes on to fund global terrorism and criminal networks. It's long been known that China is the top ivory buyer. But the U.S. is also among the world's biggest markets.

    Joining me now to talk about ivory sales in this country is the NewsHour's P.J. Tobia. He hosts our newest podcast, "Shortwave." It's all about the intersection of foreign affairs and American life.

    So, P.J., this is a fascinating piece you put together.

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Big black market. I mean, just how much money are we talking about worldwide?

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    It's always hard to get a handle on any black market, but, worldwide, the ivory trade is thought to be worth about $19 billion.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, and, as we said, most of it is in China, but more than we — people realize here in the United States. What are people using it for? Why has it become of interest to these criminal and terrorist networks?

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    Well, the criminal and terrorist networks in Africa, groups like Al-Shabaab and the janjaweed, are interested in anything they can smuggle for cash. They need money to carry out their operations.

    They already have access to cross borders to smuggle people, drugs and guns. So, ivory is just another elicit substance that they can get cash from.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And how do they do this? How do some of these transactions work?

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    Well, as I said, they know how to get people across borders, meaning they know what officials to bribe.

    They have transportation networks set up. So they know the logistics of illegal smuggling.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, here in the U.S., there are some rules and regulations, laws around this, but they don't seem to be doing the job. And I — and we should say people who are in the business of collecting antiques argue there should be a distinction made between ivory that was collected a long time ago that's in a piece of furniture and ivory that's been freshly harvested.

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    Part of the problem is, it's nearly impossible to tell with the naked eye what a piece of ivory — when a piece of ivory was harvested, whether it was harvested in 1992 or 1892.

    You need sophisticated technology. And also some ivory that's newer is OK to bring into the U.S. to import. For instance, if you shoot an elephant yourself on a game reserve that you have paid for, it's a legal kill. You can some bring tusks into the U.S. Now, if those tusks are then made into an ivory figurine or something and sold, that's a grayer area.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So there are rules and regulations, but your point is that they're just not — that they're able to get through these?

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    That's right, because while the rules are in black and white, international trade is not. And so if you — if a seller says that a piece of ivory is from one date, but it's actually from another, it's hard to prove different.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, P.J., what's the significance of this Craigslist report, and how much work is being done right now on this issue?

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    Right.

    Last month, the International Fund for Animal Welfare came out with a report where they spent a week on Craigslist in 28 cities, surveying — trying to find ivory products to buy. And they found a lot of them, hundreds of them.

    And it just shows how easy it is to get this stuff and also how hard it is to regulate, because if you're a seller — I should say that Craigslist changed their policy because of this investigation. But if you're a seller of ivory products, if you just take the word ivory out of your product's description, no one is ever going to know.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, this report has certainly shone a light on it.

    P.J. Tobia, we thank you.

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And you can join P.J. tomorrow to talk about another issue that he's covered on "Shortwave": modern-day slavery. It's part of the NewsHour's weekly Twitter chats. That's 1:00 p.m. Eastern every Thursday. The details are on our home page, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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