Antiques dealers have been accused of flouting laws to sell banned ivory, fibbing about its age to bypass sanctions despite a high profile campaign led by the Duke of Cambridge to secure an outright ban.
A study has shown that three-quarters of antiques dealers admit being aware of illegal trading, knowing colleagues or auctioneers happy to sell modern ivory passing it off as a still-legal pre-1947 artefact.
The evidence, reported by Portsmouth University’s School of Law, has been described as “disturbing”, with such traders condemned as perpetuating the slaughter of elephants for “purely mercenary motives”.
It comes after months of campaigning by the likes of the Duke of Cambridge, patron of the charity Tusk, and a Conservative manifesto committing to a total ban on ivory sales.
Currently, the law states that only ivory products made after 1947 are banned, with historic artefacts still able to be sold.
Antique owners and institutions including the British Museum have previously argued there is “no public benefit” to restricting antique ivory works of art, pointing out many national collections contain important items from before 1947.
But a report by Dr Caroline Cox, from Portsmouth University school of law’s Ivory Project, found: “Whilst none of the interviewees admitted to selling post 1947 ivory many of them stated that they either know of dealers or auctioneers who would sell post-1947 ivory, or that they had witnessed illegal ivory being sold in the UK.
“The ivory trade in the U.K. therefore depends on goodwill rather than the proper enforcement of the law.”
The report found there is no cost-effective scientific method for buyers, sellers or dealers to verify the age of ivory, with 95 per cent relying only on the “knowledge and experience” to judge.
None of those surveyed or interviewed for the study said they had used scientific testing to check whether an ivory item was from pre or post the 1947 cut-off.
Dr Cox wrote: “This report concludes that, given the intricacies and certainties relating to the current ivory trade in the U.K., there is a need for a significant structural change to the law governing the sale of ivory.
“This is required both to protect sellers of genuine antique ivory and to effectively police and enforce the regulations against sellers of post-1947 ivory items.”
Among those previously urging change have been Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, William Hague, and former secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, who each support a total ban.
The Duke of Cambridge has previously said: “We need governments to send a clear signal that trading in ivory is abhorrent."
Following the report, campaigners have called for the government to take urgent action,highlighting the 2018 International Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade as an ideal deadline.
Charlie Mayhew, chief executive of Tusk, said: “This report provides real evidence that many dealers know that their industry is complicit in the sale of illegal ivory and consumers are being misled.
“As long as the government allows the British ivory market to flourish in its current form - with modern ivory passed off as old -there will be a direct link from sale rooms and stall-holders to African savanna, with the market encouraged by traders leading to the killing of even more elephants.
“Britain’s intransigence on tightening up the law on trade is undermining its claim that it is still at the forefront of international efforts to end the illegal wildlife trade.”
Maria Mossman, founder of Action for Elephants, said: “This report presents disturbing evidence that some parts of the antiques trade are concealing a covert trade in illegal ivory.
“As long as a legal trade exists there will also be an illegal trade - this is simply the law of market dynamics and applies to any regulated commodity.
“Traders know this, yet, for purely mercenary motives, refuse to acknowledge their part in perpetuating the poaching.
“Other countries are taking the lead. Against the odds, we have seen China bring in a ban on its domestic trade and the US bring in a near-total ban.
“Until the UK follows suit with a full ban, and fulfils the pledge it made in the last two election manifestos, it will remain a pariah, not a leader, in the global fight against the illegal wildlife trade.”
A spokesman for Defra said: “We are committed to bringing an end to elephant poaching and we will shortly be consulting on our plans for an ivory ban. “We are doing more than ever to tackle the illegal wildlife trade, including investing £26m to combat poaching on the frontline and bring an end to this cruel trade.”