New Zealand Government Assessing Need for Ivory Trade Regulations

By Fiona Gordon – Director of Gordon Consulting and an Ambassador to the Jane Goodall Institute New Zealand.

Five fishermen casting their rods, two hauling in their nets, six seated buddhas, intricate pagodas and an army of miniature immortals. There’s perhaps one hundred of them in total.  Each a lifeless creamy white, sitting silently on their un-unique wooden bases.  Some look remarkably similar, almost identical.  Some appear just like the ones at another antique shop a few hundred kilometres away.  So similar in fact that one could be forgiven for thinking they might be from the same artist or manufacturer.

Only one of them is noted as ‘antique’.  There’s no reference to age whatsoever for the rest. They don’t sit for long inside their glass display cabinets. The ivory at one New Zealand auction alone soon disappears out the door for around NZD $10,000 (USD $6,600).

It is a matter of opinion as to whether the purchase price is extortionate or not, but these little ivory trinkets were undoubtedly obtained through lethal extortion.  Whether 100 years ago or yesterday, the African elephant brutally slaughtered for her ivory tusks would not have been compliant, she would not have willingly given her life. Nor that of her baby’s, killed for her tiny tusks or to draw in the rest of the herd or left to die of stress and starvation.

The African elephant was listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1976 after it was observed that the international trade in ivory was drastically reducing their population. Even with international regulation on trade, elephant populations continued to crash. The situation was so dire that in 1989 CITES put in place a total ban on the international commercial trade in ivory.

Since the 1989 ban thousands of elephant ivory carvings, ivory pieces and tusks have been legally imported into New Zealand for non-commercial purposes.  Surprisingly, CITES data shows that over 60 per cent of these imported ivory items are not noted as pre-1976 (pre-Convention), instead noted as being sourced from the ‘wild’ or of ‘unknown’ source.  Most of this ivory arrives from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and some from Mozambique or it is re-exported from Great Britain, Australia.

While clearly imported specifically for non-commercial purposes, according to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, any ivory legally imported after the 1989 ban can legitimately be sold on New Zealand’s domestic market.   This is irrespective of the purpose listed on the import permit, as that purpose relates to the reason for the item entering New Zealand at the time of import. The Department confirms that no restriction is placed on the future sale of the specimen.

This would seem to fly in the face of the 1989 international trade ban and an unsuspecting New Zealand public would likely be horrified to learn that their domestic market could well include ivory from recently killed elephants.

According to the Chief Executive Officer of the African Wildlife Foundation(AWF), Kaddu Sebunya, “Africa has only about 460,000 elephants left. The ivory trade is fuelled by demand in countries such as New Zealand and it is deeply disappointing that the market for ivory is thriving. It’s time that the New Zealand government outlawed the sale of all ivory and gave African elephants a chance.”

These matters fall on the deaf ears of New Zealand auction houses who cleanse their conscience by protesting that they deal in ‘old’ ivory and are operating within the law.  They explain that they can tell the age of an ivory item due to their years of experience. They explain that the ivory they sell is collected from various sources including estate sales and second hand shops within New Zealand.  They explain that artist signatures on ivory items indicate a ‘finer example’ and will typically command a higher price, but are not necessarily related to a particular period or date. They comment that they rarely undertake research into such matters.

With such confidence it is surprising then that New Zealand auction houses rarely provide any statement, let alone any verifiable evidence, as to the age or source of the ivory they sell or note the name or history of the artist that produced the so-called ‘beautiful pieces of art’.  With or without such statements, auction houses command between 15% – 35% plus tax on the hammer price of every lot sold via vendor commission and buyer premiums.

In any case, should an auction house choose to make a statement as to the age or source of the ivory for sale,  their policies ensure that neither they nor the seller are responsible for the correctness of any statement as to the authorship, origin, date, age or provenance of any lot.  Any statements they provide are ‘statements of opinion’ and are ‘not to be relied upon as statements of representations of fact’.  Potential buyers are required to ‘satisfy themselves by inspection or otherwise’ as to such matters.

Any inquiry by Department Officers will likely go around in circles.  Without domestic ivory trade regulations, officers must first hold reasonable grounds to believe an item has been illegally imported before being able to investigate, request documentation or other evidence relating to the trade.

With little more than a photo in a catalogue to base any judgement on and where ivory appears to be of ‘a type commonly traded and imported’, there can be little to suggest an item has been illegally imported.  Where inquiries are made and should it transpire that the ivory was purchased locally prior to being listed for sale at the auction house, the Department will likely be satisfied that the items were ‘legally obtained’.

According to Sebunya, “New Zealand is a classic example of how legitimizing some aspects of ivory trade opens doors for illegal trade as well. We will continue to lose African elephants unless governments get serious about completely outlawing ivory trade thus crushing demand.”

Indeed it is not just plausible but fact that thousands of dollars-worth of illegally imported ivory has already slipped through New Zealand’s border, some of which was sold on the domestic market under the guise of legality.

New Zealander and Past Chair of African Wildlife Foundation, David Thomson, says,“New Zealand has the reputation as a world leader in conservation of its land, forests, bird life and oceans and our conservationists are respected worldwide.”  Thomson considers that, “as an international participant in conservation and a respected signatory of CITES we should be monitoring the trade in all wildlife products, especially ivory and rhino horn.”  He adds, “it should not be difficult to add clarity to our regulations about the import and trade of ivory and it should be an obligation of our justices to prosecute the trade of illegal wildlife parts. We are stringent in applying the law if a native species is abused and we need to join hands with our international community to do likewise.”

In a positive move, the New Zealand delegation to the 2018 London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade made a formal commitment to “assess the need for regulation of New Zealand’s domestic ivory trade”.

For a country renowned for its conservation acumen, thousands of people are saying it is way past time for New Zealand to sharpen up its act.  Every domestic ivory market only serves to fuel demand and undermines the considerable resources being invested on the ground in Africa to protect her elephants from slaughter.

They stand there quietly, perhaps 30 of them.  Each stunningly unique, with their individual personalities, memories, histories and family bonds.  Intelligently caring for each other, sharing knowledge of waterholes and feeding grounds with their dependent young.  Some will move along ancient corridors only at night now, afraid to travel during the day, least the poachers see their tusks. They are Africa’s elephants. They are priceless.  They are worth protecting.

About the Author:

Fiona Gordon is a New Zealand based environmental policy analyst and an Ambassador to the Jane Goodall Institute New Zealand.  She has undertaken research into the international and domestic ivory trade since 2014. Fiona was principal researcher and co-author of the 2016 report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) “Under the Hammer” which provided the results of the first ever investigation into the nature of the auction house trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn in Australia and New Zealand.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: Journal Of African Elephants 2nd May 2019

Australia and New Zealand – Letting Elephant and Rhino Down


With a lack of appropriate enforcement tools at the border and unregulated domestic markets, if you manage to get your ivory or rhino horn into New Zealand or Australia, you are home and hosed to make a killing.

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“Let’s get serious about wildlife crime.” “The future of Elephants is in our hands.” “Listen to the Young Voices.” These annual World Wildlife Day messages were brought home with the conclusion of the inaugural United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) 2016 World Wildlife Crime Report that all regions of the world play a role as a source, transit or destination for contraband wildlife.

The Report called for the introduction of national legislation to regulate the possession, use and sale of the most threatened wildlife products from other parts of the world. It offered potential solutions, including providing customs agents with the right tools to conduct international wildlife crime enforcement. Measures required as part of the multi-faceted strategy to combat wildlife crime, world wide.

Elephants and rhinoceros are our global flag ship species in the fight against international wildlife crime. The Great Elephant Census revealed an alarming 30% decline in Africa’s savanna elephant population over 7 years. Save The Rhino reported best estimates of only 30,000 rhinos survive in the wild at the end of 2015 and that nearly three rhinos were killed every day in South Africa in 2016 alone.

Media reports on ivory and rhino horn seizures and law enforcement focus on key source, transit and consumer nations, and righty so. However other countries are also harbouring the illegal trade.

Notably, the Pacific is increasingly becoming a source and transit region for illegal wildlife trafficking, where trade is “well organized by opportunistic criminal networks and unscrupulous traders”. In the heart of this region, New Zealand and Australia have more recently been implicated in the illegal trade of ivory and rhinoceros horn.

Wildlife seizures at the New Zealand border have more than doubled from 2,268 in 2011 to 5,809 in 2015. From a total of 19,221 seizures, eight prosecutions were brought under New Zealand’s Trade in Endangered Species Act (TIES Act). Two of these prosecutions were for the illegal importation of elephant ivory. No infringement fines were issued.

Australian Customs and Border Protection Services reportedly seize 7,000 wildlife items each year, mostly in the post and passenger environment. Hundreds of seizures of suspected elephant ivory and rhino horn products were made between 2010 and 2016. No infringement fines or prosecutions have been reported for wildlife offences under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Despite the high seizure rates New Zealand and Australia have no infringement fine mechanisms for offences related to the international movement of wildlife specimens. Commendably, in February this year, New Zealand introduced the Conservation (Infringement System) Bill, which will provide for infringement systems to be placed in the Trade in Endangered Species Act.

Border control is clearly the first line of defense. However, as seizures are only ever indicative of the real scale of an illegal trade, domestic regulations must provide the second – to effectively deal with the illegal trade of wildlife items that do slip through. And they do slip through.

A New Zealand man managed to illegally import some 20 ivory items, worth about USD$12,614, before being caught out when an African elephant tusk was detected at the international mail centre. Some of the illegally imported ivory had already been sold on the domestic market.

Australian police seized an estimated USD $63,000 worth of ivory on the domestic market in 2014 and Customs seized 100kg of ivory at Perth airport the following year. No fines or prosecutions in relation to either of these seizures have been reported to date.

The incentives for criminals seeking to launder illegally imported items are obvious. Thousands of ivory products are sold each year in Australia and New Zealand on domestic markets that remain completely unregulated. Ivory can fetch as much as USD $23,600 for a pair of tusks and USD $53,000 for a pair of rhino horns. With no legal requirements for sellers to provide any proof of the origin or age of these products, the vast majority of them are offered for sale without provenance information.

These gaps, in border enforcement and lack of domestic regulations, are precisely the gaps identified in the UNODC Report. In Australia and New Zealand, if you manage to get your ivory or rhino horn into the country, you are home and hosed to make a killing on the domestic market.

For the elephant and rhino, there is no room or time left for any gaps and “we are just a drop in the bucket” inertia. Last year the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) asked all nations with unregulated domestic markets in ivory and rhino horn to close or regulate their markets. A truly global response is being called for. As the two largest parties to CITES in the region, Australia and New Zealand have a clear mandate for action and an obvious opportunity to lead the way on this front.

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