Tough new rules on the sale of ivory will ensure the African elephant does not become extinct “on our watch”, MPs have heard.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove told the Commons that the Ivory Bill would bring in “one of the world’s toughest bans on ivory sales”.
People found guilty of breaching the ban will face a maximum penalty of an unlimited fine, or up to five years in jail.
Mr Gove said: “The African elephant is an important species not just because what it symbolises, not just because of the economic impact that tourism makes in Africa, but also because it is a keystone species upon which the health, the biodiversity and the resilience of Africa’s economy depends.
“Unless action is taken in order to interdict the poachers and to reduce the demand for ivory, it could be the case that on our watch as a generation that we see the African elephant meet extinction.”
Around 20,000 elephants a year are being slaughtered for their ivory, and wildlife campaigners believe reducing global demand for their tusks is an important part of ending the carnage.
Mr Gove added: “It would be impossible for any of us to face our children and grandchildren and to say that we had the opportunity to take the steps legislative and otherwise to safeguard this magnificent creature and we failed to act.
“The legislation which is before the House today is an opportunity for us in the United Kingdom to play a part and to show leadership.”
Mr Gove told MPs that the bill could be amended at committee stage to include a ban on ivory obtained from rhino tusks and Narwhal horns.
Under the terms of the ban there will be certain “narrowly defined and carefully targeted” exemptions to ensure people are not unfairly impacted.
Items on this list include those comprised of less than 10% ivory by volume and made prior to 1947, and musical instruments with an ivory content of less than 20% and made prior to 1975.
Rare and important items of their type, which are at least 100 years old, will be assessed for their rarity and importance by specialist institutions before exemption permits are issued.
There will also be a specific exemption for portrait miniatures painted on thin slivers of ivory which are at least a century old.
Sales to and between accredited museums will also be exempt, which applies to museums accredited by Arts Council England, the Welsh Government, Museums and Galleries Scotland or the Northern Ireland Museums Council in the UK, or the International Council of Museums outside the UK.
Shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman backed the Bill on behalf of Labour, adding: “It’s really important this legislation is properly enforced through adequate resourcing.
“It must be clear there will be oversight and penalties, including imprisonment as well as heavy fines.”
Conservative former environment secretary Owen Paterson also supported the measures and suggested changes to the Bill, including that hippos should also be named in the legislation.
He said: “As the Born Free Foundation has indicated, there has been an increase in the purchasing of hippo and other non-elephant ivory in the UK to replace elephant ivory in the internal trade and they infer that the legal and the illegal trades are targeting these other species as the Government’s focus is on elephant ivory.
“Given that the total number of hippo in Africa is only 25% of the elephant population, a ban must be careful to ensure it doesn’t unintentionally place these species under yet more pressure.
“So I think it’d be sensible to have hippos on the face of the Bill now rather than have a delay of putting them through a statutory instrument later.”
The Bill received an unopposed second reading and will undergo further scrutiny at a later date.