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UK’s Ivory Trade

Elephant poster

As the largest exporter of ivory in Europe, as well as allowing a thriving ivory trade at home, the UK played a major role in feeding consumer demand for ivory. In auction houses, antique stores, market stalls, and online sales, ivory was traded openly in countless outlets. This trade served as cover for the illegal ivory trade, which was barely being monitored. With so much legal and illegal trade going on, it was clear that the UK had a complicit role in the ongoing cycle of supply and demand. But the antiques trade maintained this wasn’t the case and put up fierce opposition to the ban at every step.

Action for Elephants fought for a UK ivory ban from 2014 and was the only group taking action on the streets, with protests outside embassies, at auction houses, outside DEFRA, and at Downing St and Parliament. We held some 14 protests to demand a ban on ivory trade, wrote numerous letters to two prime ministers, replied to all the government consultations, and met with MPs and representatives of the antiques trade. Our role in pushing for the most stringent of bans was acknowledged in the government’s 2017 and 2018 Briefing Papers on ivory trade.

The UK was the world’s largest exporter of legal ivory, including to China and Hong Kong, making it a key player in the trade that was wiping out Africa’s elephants.

UK’s Ivory Trade: Timeline

2010, 2015

In 2010 the Conservative party pledged in its election manifesto to close the UK’s domestic ivory market. The same pledge appeared in the 2015 manifesto, but no action was taken. In 2015 we held the second Global March for Elephants & Rhinos and urged the prime minister to deliver on his party’s pledges.


When the government announced a partial ban, Action for Elephants kept up the pressure for a full ban. Our 2016 letter to the prime minister, delivered at the end of our march that year, was signed by Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking, Richard Leakey, members of Parliament, and many more (covered here by The Guardian).

We were advisors on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s important BBC documentary series ‘Saving Africa’s Elephants: Hugh and the Ivory War’, which followed the ivory networks from Africa’s killing fields to the world’s ivory markets, and proved the link between current poaching and UK ivory.


In October, the day before we held our Silent Protest  at Westminster, the government finally announced a proposal for a total ban on ivory sales in the UK, to be preceded by a 12-week consultation to allow all interested parties to take part in the process. It had a huge response from individuals and organisations alike and showed almost 90% of respondents to be in favour of an ivory ban.

Following the government’s announcement, the antiques trade fought to continue selling antique ivory (defined as pre-1947) and to preserve its commercial value. They refused to accept any connection between the trade and poaching, despite clear evidence to the contrary (as seen in an undercover investigation of the ivory trade). In article after article in the Antiques Trade Gazette, antique dealers advanced alarmist claims about the ban – that it would harm Britain’s cultural and artistic heritage; that personal items would be destroyed, defaced or removed; that the antiques trade would suffer or collapse if ivory couldn’t be sold – none of which were true, as the ban didn’t call for any destruction of ivory in personal or public collections.

Our letter to the prime minister of 2016, and our role in keeping pressure on the government for a total ban on ivory trade, were acknowledged in the 2017 House of Commons Briefing Paper on the Ivory Bill – ‘Despite the announcement of a partial ban, the Government had been put under pressure by an Action for Elephants letter to the Prime Minister whose signatories included William Hague, Jane Goodall and Stephen Hawking’ – and again in 2018’s Briefing Paper.

May 2018

A bill to ban ivory was introduced and quickly moved through Parliament, getting full cross-party support from both Houses.

Dec 2018

The UK Ivory Act 2018 gained Royal Assent and became law. A government release said it was expected to come into force in late 2019 – the deadline was missed.


To continue its protest against the ivory ban, the antiques trade formed a company called Friends of Antique Cultural Treasures (FACT), with financial support from the British Antique Dealers’ Association (BADA). FACT lodged two appeals in court against the ban, in 2019 and 2020, in its final attempts to overturn it. We were outside the Court on both occasions, gratified to see the appeals rejected and finally assured of victory – no more ivory would be traded in the UK.

Mar 2021

The government issued a second consultation, this time on the implementation of the law. It said it hoped to put the Ivory Act into effect by the end of 2021 – that deadline too was missed.  The delay meant leaving the door open for ivory sales to continue, and UK auction houses conducted a brisk trade in ivory objects. Whether or not it was intended as a sweetener for the antiques trade, in practice the long delay allowed ivory owners to sell and profit from their ivory before the ban came in and made it worthless.

In Jul-Sep, the government ran another consultation on extending the Ivory Act to include ivory from other species.

Jun 2022

Three and a half years after it was passed into law by Parliament, the UK Ivory Act was finally brought into force.

May 2023

The government announced that five other at-risk species would be included in the protections of the Ivory Act 2018: hippo, walrus, narwhal, killer whale, and sperm whale.

‘We must join forces everywhere to stop the slaughter of elephants and rhinos. They feel pain, they know suffering. We must stop people from buying ivory.’
Jane Goodall