The Commonwealth Connection


Massachusetts's Role in the Illegal Ivory Trade

Wildlife trafficking is an escalating global crisis, with worldwide illegal ivory trade having more than doubled since 2007 and tripled since 1998. The U.S. ivory market has historically been among the top globally, and Massachusetts plays a significant role in the demand for illegal ivory. IFAW’s 2015 report Elephant vs Mouse ranked Boston 4th in the country for sales of ivory advertised on Craigslist, reflecting just a snapshot of the larger Massachusetts problem. In 2016, the U.S. enacted a near-total ban on imports, exports, and interstate trade of African elephant ivory. The federal government, however, has limited jurisdiction over intrastate commerce, so this federal-level ban, as strong as it is, leaves large loopholes for trade within states. Investigations and criminal cases have demonstrated that wildlife traffickers are exploiting these loopholes. 

A 2017 undercover investigation conducted by HSUS found nearly 700 ivory items for sale by 64 vendors across the Commonwealth—from Great Barrington to the North Shore, from Boston to the Cape—many of whom deliberately mislabeled ivory items as “bone” or intentionally omitted the word “ivory” from item descriptions. None of the ivory sellers could provide documentation verifying the age or origin of their ivory; without documentation, it is impossible to know whether items were imported in violation of federal law. Several ivory sellers stated that they had much more ivory than what was visible in their stores, but didn’t display it because they were nervous about government oversight or negative public opinion. One seller even offered tips for smuggling ivory out of the country, including wearing it or claiming it is bone. 

During a separate 2017 on-site investigation of the Brimfield Antique show, researchers with IFAW and the MSPCA-Angell found 111 sellers of ivory or suspected ivory products, and 551 of these products in total. Most items were jewelry or small carvings, and prices varied widely, as low as $5 for a brooch to as much as $9,000 for a large carved statue. Although the researchers did not attempt to assess documentation or provenance, many exhibitors were from out of state, possibly selling ivory in violation of federal law; U.S. regulations prohibit the interstate trade of ivory that does not meet certain qualifications, but according to the Brimfield website, only 125 of the estimated 1,000 exhibitors are from Massachusetts.

While it is impossible to know the true quantity of illegal wildlife products that are smuggled into Massachusetts, we know that it is without question occurring, based on federal border seizure data. Between 2010 and 2014, an average of 37 pieces of ivory were seized or refused each year, totaling a market value ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. There have also been a number of federal ivory or rhino trafficking cases connected to Massachusetts. Recent cases prosecuted in Massachusetts include the following:

  • In May 2015, a business owner in Concord, MA pleaded guilty to smuggling ivory products from the U.S. to China, with the value of the shipped goods exceeding $700,000. The woman was also coaching an alleged co-conspirator on how to ship items in order to minimize chance of detection by customs inspectors. She suggested, for example, using USPS to ship the ivory because it is “less expensive than UPS and does not get scrutinized quite as much.” One of the items her alleged co-conspirator wanted help shipping was a rhinoceros head.

  • A man was convicted for trafficking ivory into the U.S. from Canada in 2014 and selling six elephant tusks to a Massachusetts buyer for $50,000.

  • In 2010, a popular Nantucket scrimshander was convicted of multiple felony counts of participating in an international conspiracy to smuggle elephant ivory and whale teeth into the U.S.

S. 496 and H. 772 align Massachusetts law with federal law to close our state loophole. These bills strengthens state-level protections by largely mirroring the new federal law and applying the federal (interstate trade) standard to intrastate trade in Massachusetts. It restricts trade of most ivory and rhino horn products with exemptions for antiques legal under the federal ESA (legally acquired products with less than 200 grams of ivory/horn, musical instruments, inheritance, and sale or donation to scientific and educational institutions.)