UK government tables legislation to extend Ivory Act to hippos and whales

Hippos, narwhals, sperm whales and orcas will all be included in the new legislation on domestic ivory trade.

A hippo grazing in a marshy area of grass

(c) Blake McGrow

Following years of campaigning by Born Free and others, on 21st May the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that it had tabled legislation in Parliament to extend the UK’s comprehensive domestic ban on elephant ivory trade to other ivory-bearing species, specifically hippos, narwhals, sperm whales and orcas, finally fulfilling the intention announced in May last year

The Ivory Act, which passed through Parliament in 2018, and was finally implemented in June 2022, introduced some of the world’s strictest rules on ivory trade, banning imports, exports and internal trade in all but a few specified elephant ivory items. According to Born Free’s research, conducted before and after its implementation, the Ivory Act is having a positive impact on reducing the online trade in elephant ivory in the UK, and this trend is also reflected in research carried out by others. Since the Act was implemented, enforcement authorities have conducted a number of investigations, and recently secured the conviction of an individual in Scotland who had reportedly made thousands of pounds from the illegal sale of elephant ivory items online.  

However, it’s not only elephants that are targeted for their ivory. The tusks and teeth from several other species, including hippos, walruses, warthogs, narwhals, sperm whales, and orcas, are also sought after, and there have been longstanding concerns that bans on elephant ivory trade, which are critical to the protection of elephants, might inadvertently result in increased pressure on these other ivory-bearing species. 

Responding to the news, Born Free’s Head of Policy Dr Mark Jones said: “We campaigned long and hard for the international ban on elephant ivory trade, which came into force in 1989, and for the more recent restrictions on trade in the UK. These measures, and those in other countries, are critical to the survival of elephants. However, we must not allow these protections to result in increased pressure on other ivory-bearing species. That’s why we have campaigned tirelessly for the Ivory Act to be extended to include other species which are targeted for their ivory. This announcement by the UK government hasn’t come a moment too soon.” 

Hippos are of particular concern in relation to the ivory trade. Research conducted by Born Free in 2019 indicated that international trade in hippo ivory has been steadily increasing in recent years. In 2018 alone, more than 13,000 hippo teeth and tusks, plus an additional 4 tonnes by weight, were traded internationally.  

Our more recent research suggests that hippo ivory products advertised for sale in the UK through online platforms may be increasing following the Ivory Act’s implementation. With fewer than 130,000 individual hippos thought to remain across their African range (compared to about 450,000 African elephants), protecting them from being killed for their teeth is critical to their survival. 

Walruses, another species of concern, have not been added to the Ivory Act, because trade in their tusks in the UK is already tightly restricted under existing legislation covering the trade in seal products. 

Dr Jones continued:  “We encourage parliamentarians to adopt the legislation extending the Ivory Act without delay. We also encourage the UK government to ensure that ivory from walruses is prevented from entering or being traded in the UK under the seal regulations, and to consider further extending the scope of the Ivory Act to walruses should it be necessary, and to warthogs which have thus far been woefully overlooked.” 

Born Free will continue to work with government officials and other organisations to ensure the Ivory Act is robustly implemented, and to campaign for similar restrictions on trade in ivory from all ivory-bearing species in other jurisdictions.