The selling of ivory has been illegal since 1989 when a global ban prohibiting the trade was introduced, but there's a loophole. It is perfectly legal to sell and buy ivory products in many countries provided they predate 1947 and so can be classified as antiques under EU regulations.
Now, an investigation carried out by environmental campaign group Avaaz has revealed the open trade in antique ivory is hiding a trade in recently poached (and therefore illegal) ivory.
Members of the group bought 109 ivory items from 10 European countries. With the help of researchers at the University of Oxford, the campaigners used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of their acquisitions. This technique cannot prove definitively when the ivory was extracted by poachers but it can tell us when the ivory grew and, therefore, give us some kind of indication as to when the animal was killed.
Three-quarters of the objects purchased contained ivory obtained after 1947, which means they cannot be classified as antique. What's more, almost a fifth consisted of ivory from elephants killed post-1990, after the international ban was established. At least one piece contained ivory dating to 2010.
"I'm looking at the trinkets we bought on my desk, and to think that an elephant with all the things we are learning about them, about their cognition and their advanced societies, and to think that one of them has died for this bracelet I'm holding now, it makes you sick to your stomach," Bert Wander, an Avaaz campaigner involved in the investigation, told BBC News.
Of those bought in the UK, one-fifth of pieces were unlawfully marketed as antique. Meanwhile, all the items purchased in Spain, Italy, and Bulgaria and most of those from France, Portugal, and the Netherlands broke EU law.
The EU is already in the process of reviewing its restrictions on ivory, the BBC reports. While the European Parliament is proposing a blanket ban on the sale of ivory, member countries are working on their own regulations. In April, the UK parliament agreed to implement one of the world's toughest bans on ivory, covering items of all ages.