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Which side has the ivory power?

A pair of little-noticed lobbying hires in Washington late last month may foretell a larger, coming war this fall over the international ivory trade at a convention in South Africa.

Two Washington-based lobbyists at a D.C. firm, Martina Lewis Bradford and Greggory Keith Spence, were announced as new hires in a federal lobbying filing in late May. They have been retained by the Ivory Education Institute, a Los Angeles-based group that defends the legal collection of ivory antiquities.

Godfrey Harris, managing director of the Ivory Education Institute, confirmed the new hires and said they will help the institute battle an expected attempt in September at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species summit in Johannesburg for a total ban on the ivory trade.

“There is a threat from wildlife interventionists of a ban on all trade for all ivory, with no exceptions for antiquities or anything else,” Harris told AMI Newswire. “We think that’s crap. We think they have no proof, and we think it would be a mistake if the U.S. were to adopt this approach. These groups are bending the statistics badly and twisting the issue to raise money.”

The opposite view is held by endangered wildlife advocates, such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, a New York-based group that is one of the largest in the U.S. It is running the 96 Elephants Campaign, an effort to promote elephant protection that is named after the estimated number of elephants that are killed by poachers every day.

John Calvelli, WCS executive vice-president for public affairs and director of the 96 Elephants Campaign, said it’s Harris’s group that doesn’t know the facts.   

“I have to be passionate in my job, but I also have to be objective, and these facts are the way it is,” Calvelli said. “This is not about impacting people with guns with ivory handles, or musical instruments. It’s about this incredible increase we’ve seen in environmental crimes. It’s scary because it’s growing at an incredible rate.”

He cited a recent National Geographic study that showed an “unsustainable market” for ivory, since 300 million people around the world are expressly interested in purchasing some form of ivory. “There’s not enough elephants for that,” he said. “We need to stop the killing, we need to stop the ivory trade, and we need to stop the demand.”

According to figures released by the National Geographic Society this month, Africa’s elephant population is declining by precipitous levels, by up to 30,000 per year, as a result of poaching and ivory trafficking. Yet, the continent is split between two powerful factions – Kenya, which supports burning ivory stockpiles and implementing a total ban on the trade – and South Africa, which does not.

The Obama administration on Thursday announced it would implement a near-total ban on ivory trading in the U.S. through an executive order, with some exceptions such as documented antiques. President Obama himself had vowed to implement the ban during a visit to Kenya in 2013.

That was applauded by conservationists such as the WCS, whose president and CEO, Cristian Samper, is a member of an Obama administration task force on wildlife trafficking. Samper last week described the administration’s announcement as “shutting down the bloody ivory market that is wiping out Africa’s elephants … The U.S.A. is boldly saying to ivory poachers: ‘You are officially out of business.' ”  

The ban that could come out of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species summit in Johannesburg this fall would come in the form of a resolution asking all 190 member countries to close their markets to ivory. Countries would then be left to themselves to implement such a ban.

But some countries may impose bans with no exceptions, worrying groups such as the Ivory Education Institute – which describes itself, in part, as a mouthpiece for traders and collectors who are simply battling misinformation.

Harris, for example, compared a potential total ban on the ivory trade to America’s 1920-1933 experiment of banning alcohol through Prohibition, or the government’s “War on Drugs” in the 1980s, or more recent attempts to stem the tide of illegal immigration. He said the end result could actually endanger elephants more.

“We say if you do the same thing, you’ll get the same result,” he said. “Scarcity raises prices, and it certainly does not end demand.”

Calvelli scoffed, saying that even Obama’s executive order exempted official antiques that contain ivory. “No one is talking about policing antiquities.” 

Bradford, one of the two newly hired lobbyists, told AMI Newswire that she and Spence are “really committed to the cause.”

“This is really about antiques, and about them getting the treatment they deserve,” she said. “They represent our cultural history, and they should be protected. So it’s about antiques.”