HONOLULU — Cheryl Konrad has spent the past 35 years educating visitors to her store in Lahaina, Hawaii, about the centuries-old history of scrimshaw.
Konrad fills the shelves at Lahaina Scrimshaw with the etchings of local artists on fossilized walrus and mammoth ivory. But if a bill to ban the sale of ivory becomes law this year, she worries that she will be forced to close her store.
“I feel like I’ve been a part of history. It’s just so hard to fathom that it could be criminal eventually,” Konrad said.
Similar legislation in previous years has failed largely because of resistance from local merchants who make a living selling legal ivory carvings and jewelry. But increased awareness of the poaching of elephants in Africa is leading lawmakers to reconsider.
“I think we have a good shot at it,” said state Sen. Mike Gabbard, a Democrat who represents Kapolei and who introduced the bill in the Senate.
The Humane Society of the United States says Hawaii is the third-largest ivory market in the nation, after California and New York, which have banned its sale altogether. With the world in the midst of a poaching crisis, they said, Hawaii could become the United States’ largest market if left unregulated.
Poaching of African elephants has reached the highest level recorded since international organizations began keeping track in 2002, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency estimates 100,000 elephants were killed across Africa for ivory between 2010 and 2012.
Both the Hawaii House and Senate have passed their own version of bills that would ban the sale of certain wildlife parts, including elephant ivory, rhinoceros horn and shark. The bills include some exemptions, including for the age of the ivory and cultural uses.
Lawmakers who are opposed to the ban said it’s too broad.
“I just think this is a meat-ax approach when it didn’t have to be,” said state Sen. Rosalyn Baker, who added that the legislation could hurt people who have spent years collecting ivory.
It could also criminalize art forms that have long been a part of the state’s history, she said.
Even today, dozens of Hawaii residents earn a living selling ivory. Ray Peters, who has lived on Maui since the 1970s, said he’s built his life off scrimshaw and it would be difficult for him to find another job in his late 60s.
“I will be forced to leave our islands which have been my home for 45 years,” Peters said.
Konrad, who owns Lahaina Scrimshaw, acknowledges the exemptions for antique bone, but she says getting documentation to prove ivory is over a century old is difficult. Most ivories weren’t regulated until the 1970s, so ivory imported into the United States before then often doesn’t have documentation, she said.
“I just hope to God that we are able to continue on for a few more short years,” Konrad said.
Keith Swindle, a special agent at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hawaii, said a ban on nearly all ivory is necessary because it’s tricky to tell its age, especially in the form of small carvings or jewelry. Some will stain poached ivory to disguise it as an antique or fossil.
“If I gave you two pieces of ivory, you could not tell them apart if one is legal or illegal,” Swindle said. “So if you have a legal ivory market, it makes it very easy to have a market to illegally launder ivory.”