The Association of Zoos & Aquariums is teaming up with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to organize a series of ivory surrender events that encourage public participation in the fight to save elephants from wildlife trafficking. Events will take place at leading zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) across the U.S. where the public will be able to bring their unwanted ivory for proper disposal.
Toss The Tusk is a series of events taking place at zoos across the United States to raise awareness about the elephant poaching crisis and illegal ivory trade. Organized by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ Wildlife Trafficking Alliance (WTA) and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), Toss the Tusk encourages the public to support long-term conservation efforts by attending a local event and “surrender” their unwanted elephant ivory. Learn more about Toss the Tusk on the website.
Elephant ivory is a hard white substance derived from the tusks of elephants. Tusks are teeth (modified incisors) comprised primarily of dense bone tissue (i.e. dentine).
Ivory was used to craft both practical and ornamental goods in certain cultures, and the international trade of elephant ivory was legal and largely unregulated prior to the passage of laws such as the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international treaty to ensure that international trade in wild plants and animals does not threaten the survival of the species in the wild. Demand for ivory poses a serious threat to the long-term survival of elephants, and today, international commercial trade, sale, import, and export of ivory products is closely regulated or prohibited.
Elephant ivory may exist in uncarved form, as whole or partial tusks, or may be carved. Common examples of carved elephant ivory products include jewelry like necklaces, bracelets, or cufflinks; household goods like napkin rings, ashtrays, and cutlery handles; or art pieces like carved figurines. Ivory has also historically been used in musical instruments such as piano keys or inlays, as the handles of weapons, or as personal goods like hair combs.
In some parts of Southern and East Africa, elephant populations are stable or increasing. In others, particularly parts of Central and West Africa, elephant numbers are still declining rapidly. Although the drivers and threats facing elephants are complex, often interacting, and may differ according to region, poaching remains a significant threat and thousands of elephants are killed each year to fuel the global demand for ivory.
African elephant populations have fallen from an estimated 12 million a century ago to around 415,000 individuals as of 2016. According to African elephant specialists, more than 100,000 African elephants were killed during 20010-2012 alone, with poaching for ivory as the main driver of this decline. Elephant populations simply can’t keep up. Elephants take more than a decade to reach reproductive age and females only produce a calf every 4 to 5 years, meaning elephant populations are slow to grow and more individuals may be killed each year than are born.
As a result of global conservation efforts, poaching rates have been slightly, yet steadily, declining over the past few years across Africa. The annual poaching mortality rate has dropped from an estimated peak of over 10% in 2011 to approximately 5% today, but we are still losing elephants faster than they can reproduce.
Poaching for ivory can exacerbate other threats impacting elephants, including climate change and drought, and competition for space, with habitat loss and fragmentation leading to higher levels of human-elephant conflict, which can lead to the retaliative killing of elephants.
While much of the illegal ivory trade comes from African elephants, Asian elephants have also declined both in numbers and geographic range. Today, Asian elephants can only be found in 13 countries, and often in smaller, isolated populations. Poaching of Asian elephants for ivory remains a threat in some countries. Since only males sport tusks in Asian elephants, there are many wild Asian elephant populations without tusked males. Most tusked Asian elephant males have been poached for their ivory, and many tusked Asian elephant males are in private collections.
The illegal ivory trade does more than threaten the survival of elephants. Elephants play an important role in their habitats by eating high numbers of seeds and dispersing them over long distances, knocking down trees as they browse, returning nutrients to the soil in their feces, and more. Elephants also promote plant diversity, increase habitat for grasses and grazing animals, and nourish their environment. As a result of this ecosystem engineering, elephants are considered keystone or flagship species. Declines in elephant populations due to the ivory trade mean fewer elephants to support healthy ecosystems and may drive declines of other wildlife.
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies African forest elephants as “Critically Endangered,” the African savanna elephant as “Endangered,” and the Asian elephant as “Endangered.” The U.S. Endangered Species Act classifies African elephants as “Threatened” and Asian elephants as “Endangered.”
Under CITES, African elephants are included in Appendix I, except populations of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, which were annotated and included in Appendix II in 1997, and populations in South Africa, which were moved to Appendix II in 2000. All Asian elephants are included in CITES Appendix I.
International commercial trade in the ivory of elephants is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In the United States, elephants are protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The ivory trade is further restricted by the African Elephant Conservation Act of 1988 and other laws.
In 2016, a near-total ban on the commercial trade of African elephant ivory went into effect in the United States. However, these regulations do not restrict personal possession of ivory. If you already own ivory – an heirloom carving that’s been passed down in your family, or a vintage musical instrument with ivory components—you can still legally own those pieces.
The United Kingdom, Japan, and China have also imposed bans on domestic ivory trade to protect elephants. Despite increased conservation efforts, elephant populations continue to decline in some countries. If poaching continues, the long-term survival of elephants is at risk.
We must act quickly and effectively to save elephants from extinction. But most importantly, we must act together. By surrendering elephant ivory, you will help ensure that it will not drive the demand for the product and not be made available on the market. By removing ivory products from the market, we can help keep these majestic animals alive for generations to come.
Ivory surrendered at Toss The Tusk events will be collected by representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and safely transported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife National Wildlife Property Repository in Colorado, where it will be stored securely. Once there, ivory can support conservation work benefiting elephants in several ways:
Seeing and even touching tusks or ivory carvings is a powerful experience for many people interested in wildlife or conservation. Surrendered items may become part of education projects led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or may be loaned to other federal agencies, state agencies, accredited zoos or aquariums, museums, universities and more, inspiring learners of all ages to care about wildlife and do their part to help African and Asian elephant and other species around the world. By surrendering elephant ivory, you are supporting educational experiences that create powerful emotional connections with nature, encourage people to seek careers in conservation, increase awareness and understanding about complex wildlife issues, and inspire the next generation of conservation scientists.
Law enforcement agencies are vital partners in efforts to combat the illegal ivory trade. Surrendered ivory items may be used to train law enforcement staff to identify ivory and used as scent training for law enforcement canines, which will help agencies better detect and seize illegal ivory shipments. These trainings are done with local, state, federal, and international law enforcement partners, and support conservation work across the world. Your surrendered ivory products provide agencies and trainers with a wider array of training material, increasing their capacity to recognize illegal elephant ivory products and apprehend ivory traffickers.
Conservation scientists and researchers may examine wildlife products as part of their studies. Raw or carved ivory products may hold important clues to questions about elephants or other species with ivory or may reveal important information about the historic or current ivory trade. Surrendered ivory products may provide researchers with additional data that might not have existed before and increase the amount of ivory material available for these studies. Findings from this research could be used to shape conservation priorities or new scientific studies, inform law enforcement training or detection efforts, provide new standards for conservation education, or guide future conservation polices, towards species used as elephant ivory substitutes all benefiting wildlife in the long term.
No. It is NOT illegal to possess these items if they were lawfully acquired.
In 2016, a near-total ban on the commercial trade of African elephant ivory went into effect in the United States. However, the new regulations do not restrict personal possession of ivory. If you already own ivory – an heirloom carving that’s been passed down in your family, or a vintage musical instrument with ivory components—you can still legally own those pieces.
Attend a Toss The Tusk event near you and we’ll help you! All the necessary forms and information to surrender your ivory will be provided at the event, and zoo staff will be available to help ensure an easy process.
Outside of #TosstheTusk events, you may surrender unwanted items to the National Wildlife Property Repository. Visit their website, and scroll to the section titled “abandonments” to learn how. Or contact the National Wildlife Property Repository at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (303) 287-2224.
Even if you do not have ivory to surrender, we hope you will attend a Toss The Tusk event to show your support for elephants! Other ways you can help elephants are:
Conservation is a priority for AZA-accredited facilities and is a key component of their missions. As wild populations of elephants continue to decline in Africa and Asia, AZA-accredited zoos are playing a vital role as stewards of an important part of the world’s heritage, while also supporting conservation programs in the wild. AZA institutions care for 161 African and 154 Asian elephants in 62 AZA-accredited zoos. AZA-accredited facilities are supporting several elephant conservation projects, including anti-poaching, human-wildlife coexistence, habitat protection, and conservation education. Elephant research efforts by AZA facilities primarily focused on disease/epidemiology, health, and behavior. Altogether, 80 AZA members reported spending nearly $7.5 million on both African and Asian elephant conservation and research between 2019 and 2021.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) enforces laws that protect wildlife. Special agents investigate wildlife crimes within the United States and abroad, including investigations into the illegal ivory trade. Wildlife Inspectors work at U.S. ports of entry facilitating the robust legal wildlife trade and interdicting illegal wildlife and wildlife products. Other OLE staff collect intelligence, analyze forensic evidence, train domestic and international counterparts, and talk with the public about the importance of conserving elephants and other species.
Beyond this, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s International Affairs program provides support and coordinates domestic and international efforts to protect elephants and other species of international concern. This includes providing financial and technical assistance to elephant conservation efforts through its conservation grants programs, in particular through the African Elephant Conservation Fund and Asian Elephant Conservation Fund. It also includes administering domestic laws and international treaties, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and issuing permits allowing for legal, sustainable wildlife trade. This International Affairs’ work is a vital component of efforts to conserve elephant populations and other species.
Report wildlife crime to 1-844-FWS-TIPS (1-844-397-8477) or online at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Wildlife Crime Tips page.
Learn more about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Office of Law Enforcement, the International Affairs program, and the National Wildlife Property Repository online.