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.

You can act now - ask for #NoDomesticTrade in New Zealand - and make a difference.

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.

Commentary published in the African Elephant Journal