A November 2013 photo shows confiscated ivory tusks, estimated by U.S. wildlife officials to be from around 2,000 elephants, at the National Wildlife Property Repository, Denver. (EPA/ALEX HOFFORD)

Hawaii is a major American gateway to Asia. Tourists from the continent adore elephant ivory that’s carved into ornate art and jewelry, and Hawaiian merchants are happy to oblige with sales.

A thriving ivory retail market has placed Hawaii behind only New York and California in sale volume at a time when massive numbers of elephants are being illegally slaughtered for their tusks. But now, after California’s governor signed a ban on sales Sunday and New York instituted a ban last year, Hawaii stands alone among America’s big three as a place where the artifact can be sold over the counter for cash.

At least three attempts at bans in the state House and Senate fell apart against a wall of opposition from merchants. New Jersey also bans most ivory sales. “In a sense, it kind of bumps us up to first place,” said Inga Gibson, senior director of the Hawaii office of the Humane Socieity of the United States. “We were identified in 2008 as a place where 80 percent was of ivory was of illegal origin. A lot of it is freshly carved. There’s no question that this trade has been going on here for many years.”

In May, federal authorities raided a warehouse in Honolulu seeking banned elephant and walrus ivory, as well as whale bone, that had been imported to the island. Agents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seized several boxes of artifacts. A criminal smuggling complaint was filed against a Hawaiian native.

[This is why the government crushed a ton of ivory in Times Square]

The Humane Society was at the forefront of a push to ban the sale of elephant ivory by convincing state lawmakers to craft legislation, Gibson said. This year bills that would ban the sale of ivory, while allowing people who currently possess artifacts to keep them and legally pass them down to relatives, passed the state House but died in the Senate.

Retailers convinced some lawmakers that the law would “criminalize grandmothers who possessed ivory” though it would prohibit only sales, Gibson claimed. Without a total ban on retail, Hawaii, where only two special agents patrol the entire Pacific region — including American Samoa and Guam — would be hard pressed to police smuggling and illegal trade, she said.

Officials in California and New York ran into similar arguments against their bans before lawmakers in those states heeded the words of federal officials who said strong action was needed to save African elephants from an ongoing slaughter.

“In just a three-year span” ending in 2014, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said at a federal event where a ton of ivory was crushed in Times Square,  an estimated 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory. “That’s an average of 34,000 elephants per year killed in Africa. In other words, while we’re sitting here, while we are at this event, about six more elephants will die, maybe more, because they’re now going after the babies.”


Interior Secretary Sally Jewell puts a confiscated artwork made out of ivory on a crash-machine during a ceremony at the Times Square in New York on June 19, 2015. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Last month, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to end ivory sales in their countries. The move by Xi put pressure on independent Hong Kong to give up its position as a global hub for commercial ivory that allows smugglers to mix illegal ivory with ivory that officials in the province say is legally acquired.

Most ivory hacked from the faces of elephants by poachers ends up in China, where master carvers are standing by. The demand there is so high that ivory sells at roughly $1,000 per pound, allowing everyone who touches it along a trade route flowing from Africa to America to Asia to get a profit share, including groups that commit terrorist acts, intelligence officials have said.

California’s ban that takes effect next year in July prohibits the sale of all ivory. A few exceptions include instruments crafted with about 20 percent ivory if they were built before 1975, and century-old artifacts containing 5 percent of ivory or less. Scientific and educational institutions can continue to buy and sell ivory. After July, selling ivory will be misdemeanor that results in a year in jail and a fine of up to $50,000.

[Overwhelmed U.S. port inspectors unable to keep up with illegal ivory trade]

Under a current prohibition that California’s new law will replace, selling century old items and instruments such as pianos with ivory was allowed. In San Francisco, an Associated Press reporter found vendors in Chinatown passing off all ivory as either antiques, whale bone or cow bone. But an investigation by a conservation group found that 80 percent of those items were likely illegal even under California’s less strict law at the time.


A government official picks up an ivory tusk to crush it at a confiscated ivory destruction ceremony in Beijing on May 29, 2015. (REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon)

The investigation by the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council found that more than 1,250 ivory items offered for sale by 107 vendors in California over about a month starting mid-March last year. The report said 777 items were up for sale by 77 vendors in Los Angeles and more than 473
pieces were sold by 30 vendors in San Francisco.

“This law will crack down on that market by prohibiting commerce, increasing penalties for traffickers,” said Elly Pepper, a wildlife advocate for NRDC. “The less demand there is in the U.S., the less incentive there is for poachers in Africa to kill elephants.

“Our goal is to ban the top three ivory markets in the United States,” Pepper said. “Now we have to figure out how to solve Hawaii.”

Read More:

How the ivory and rhinoceros horn trade flows around the world

Federal budget cuts worry inspectors who police wildlife trafficking

New rules will ban the import and export of ivory, and make it tougher to sell