The government has launched a consultation today that proposes to ban the domestic ivory trade in the UK.

It’s already illegal to trade ivory internationally, but some countries allow antiques to be sold domestically. At the moment, the UK is one of those countries, and as such, has become the largest legal exporter of ivory in the world.

With 20,000 African elephants killed for their ivory every year, is the UK doing enough? And how does it compare to other developed nations?

Here’s how other major countries and economies handle the domestic ivory trade

  • Near-total ban in the US: Barack Obama brought in a ban on the domestic ivory trade in the US in 2016. Only antiques more than 100 years old can be sold.
  • Near-total ban in Canada: The Canadian government passed legislation in 1992 to ban the domestic ivory trade, unless traders could prove that the elephant was taken from the wild before 3 July 1975.
  • Near-total ban in France. In 2016, the French government banned the domestic trade in France and its overseas territories. It went even further than many international accords, and outlawed ivory trading regardless of age or antique value.
  • EU regulations are more lenient, and permit member states to trade ivory domestically. The Commission said last year that it wanted to focus on helping countries that have elephants to manage their populations more sustainably. The EU did, however, bring in a ban on importing raw ivory.
  • Near-total ban in China. The announcement from 2016 was hailed by conservation charities as a source of “greater hope” for elephants.

How does the UK compare?

The new rules proposed by Michael Gove today are only draft regulations. For now, the UK permits the domestic trade in ivory if the elephant was killed before 1947.

But, as the International Fund for Animal Welfare points out, the current rules are very difficult to police because “without carbon dating testing all ivory items that are for sale it is very difficult to positively identify which pieces are antique and which are not.

“Since carbon dating is very expensive it is unlikely this could be rolled out on a large scale for the market. As a result of these identification difficulties, modern ivory is stained and artificially aged by unscrupulous dealers so it can be sold as ‘antique’.”

Will the government’s proposed approach actually help?

Ahead of this year’s election, the Conservatives were accused of silently dropping their previous commitment to cracking down on the ivory trade.

But polling by Populus on behalf of the World Wildlife Fund suggests that three quarters of the public want to ban the trade in ivory.

Today’s announcement sets out the government’s intention to ban ivory trading in the UK – regardless of the age of the item.

On the face of it, that would appear to resolve the issue of authorities identifying – or criminals falsifying – the age of ivory items.

However, the proposed rules would still include four exemptions:

  • musical instruments
  • items containing only a small proportion of ivory
  • items of significant historic, artistic or cultural value, and
  • sales to and between museums

Three of those four categories seem fairly easy to prove or disprove. But it’s not clear how flexible the rules would be on defining “items of significant historic, artistic or cultural value”.

The government says it will “ work with conservationists, the arts and antiques sectors and other interested parties through the consultation period on exactly how these exemptions can be defined, implemented and enforced so as to ensure there is no room for loopholes which continue to fuel the poaching of elephants.”

Until that detail is finalised, it’s not clear how effective the new rules will be.