The Commonwealth Connection


Massachusetts's Role in the Illegal Ivory Trade

Wildlife trafficking is an escalating global crisis, and worldwide illegal ivory trade has 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 big 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, showing only a small snapshot of the larger Mass. problem. The federal government has limited jurisdiction over intrastate commerce, so the updated rules, strong as they are, still leave room for intrastate sales with minimal oversight. 

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, to Boston and down to the Cape,—many of whom were deliberately mislabeled ivory items as “bone” or intentionally omitted the word “ivory” from items’ descriptions. None of the ivory sellers could provide documentation verifying the age or origin of the 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 are 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 into 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 occurring based on federal border seizure data. USFWS data show illegal ivory and rhino horn coming into the Port of Boston and there have been a number of federal ivory/rhino trafficking cases connected to Massachusetts. 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.[i]

Recent prosecuted cases in MA: maybe put in reverse chronological order with most recent first.

  • 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 ways to ship items with minimal chances of detection by customs inspectors. She even suggested using USPS to ship the ivory, because it is “less expensive than UPS and does not get scrutinized quite as much.” One item her alleged co-conspirator wanted help shipping was a rhinoceros head. [ii] 

  • 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. 2575 aligns Massachusetts law with federal law to close our state-level loophole. This bill strengthens state-level protections by largely mirroring the new federal law and applying the federal (interstate trade) standard to intrastate trade in Mass. It restricts trade of most ivory and rhino horn products with exemptions for antiques legal under the federal ESA; legally acquired products with a small amount (less than 200 grams) of ivory/horn; musical instruments; inheritance; and sale or donation to scientific and educational institutions.


[i] Data generated from search of “refused” and “seized” LEMIS data from 2007-2014. Data available upon request.

[ii] Concord business owner charged with smuggling ivory, rhinoceros horns from U.S. to China, Boston Business Journal, May 5, 2015