Ivory: Fish & Wildlife Service publish ‘Rule’ to amend implementation of Director’s Order 210

Ivory Panel with Qur’anic Inscription, 1550-25. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Make no mistake: the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) is faced with a tough task.  It must, among many other responsibilities, implement universally supported government policy on the conservation of endangered species.  With regard to Director’s Order 210, first issued in February last year, its role is to contribute to the elimination of the illicit trade in poached ivory.  It has been evident for the past eighteen months that this quest has been sweeping up in its wake the trade in world-class works of art made from or incorporating ivory.  This has led to focused lobbying and consultation on the part of museums, dealers and collectors.  The Fish & Wildlife Service promised to listen.

And now the Service has published its conclusions.  Those who believe in the free movement of works of art will be disappointed.  Sure, there is welcome confirmation that works may be imported and re-exported for museum exhibitions, but is this more than clarification of what was always intended?  For institutional and private collectors, as well as for dealers, the absolute ban on imports remains.  This makes no sense, not least in the light of the absurd concession on ‘sport-hunted trophies’.  Policy should remain centred on the preservation of the elephant, and not inhibit the appreciation of cultural artifacts from across the millennia.

What needs to happen?  Well, the first thing to repeat is that it is up to US citizens to tackle their government and its agencies however they choose: Europeans and others are only a little less than powerless to exert influence.  Efforts need to be redoubled to prove that the examples of abuse repeatedly cited by FWS, such as the hoard of illicit ivory (successfully) seized from a dealer in Philadelphia, have nothing in common with a work of art being brought in by, so to speak, a scholarly dealer on Madison Avenue on behalf of a collector who is at the same time a trustee and future donor to one of the nations many great museums.  FWS also need to be educated into the fact, yes the fact, that curators and other accredited experts can clearly demonstrate the characteristics of old worked ivory.

The FWS ‘Rule’ will include welcome concessions for musical instruments, and addresses the issue of people who happen to possess inherited ivory.  But meanwhile, while properly documented ivory can in theory be moved across State lines, this will also still be subject to the restrictions introduced by individual legislatures.  There are indeed some positive amendments, but these represent little more than pyrrhic victories in the light of the ban on the free (and CITES-documented) to and fro of international trade.

There are now 60 days to comment before a final and binding ‘Rule’ is issued, and FWS invites participation in this process.  Everyone should encourage the bureaucrats to take a close look, for example, at the specific amendments proposed African Elephant Conservation and Legal Ivory Possession Act of 2015 (see ‘Latest News’, 18 July 2015): there is still room and time for common sense to take hold.