FAIRBANKS, Alaska — A U.S. senator from Alaska called a field Senate committee hearing regarding the federal ban on ivory from African elephants, which Alaska Natives say is confusing tourists and having a "chilling effect" on their legal use of walrus, mammoth and mastodon ivory products in art.
Sen. Dan Sullivan convened the field hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fishers, Water and Wildlife during the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention on Oct. 21.
Immediately following St. Lawrence Island artist Susie Silook's impassioned speech on the convention's main stage, she stepped into a side meeting room at the Carlson Center to testify before the committee. Silook was joined by Sealalaska Heritage Institute president Rosita Worl; Arctic Slope Regional executive vice president Tara Sweeney; and Margaret Williams, managing director of the Arctic Program at the World Wildlife Fund.
Alaska's senior Sen. Lisa Murkowski joined Sullivan in addressing the audience and listened briefly before leaving for her scheduled address to the main convention.
Sullivan said that a federal rule that took effect in July bans the sale and trade of only elephant ivory. But the ban confuses tourists who think it applies to all ivory and they have avoided purchasing Alaska Native art made from legally harvested walrus and fossilized mammoth and mastodon.
No declines in walrus populations ever have been attributed to the traditional use and harvest of walrus tusks, and the bans have economic consequences for communities who use the resource and artists whose livelihood depends on their ivory carvings and other art.
Instead, the rule is meant to help federal agents intercept black market shipments and catch traffickers who contributed to the killing of an estimated 100,000 elephants - one every 15 minutes - for their ivory in a recent three year period, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Further fueling the confusion, California, New York and New Jersey have enacted their own state laws banning the trade and sale of all types of ivory including walrus and mammoth tusks. Additional states are considering similar laws.
Sullivan kicked off the hearing by explaining why it was being held at the conference.
"Rather than having you come to Washington, we're hosting this here where you are and to also bring awareness to this issue that is harming Alaska Native artisans."
Sealaska's Worl testified first and said she has been proactive her attempts to prevent state ivory bans.
"These ivory bans are a deterrent and may confuse those who would buy. Suppression of the ivory market could be disastrous," Worl said. "There is little opportunity for economic development in our villages. Today, arts and crafts play and even greater role in village economies."
She said an ivory artist can earn between $35,000 and $50,000 a year, money that is shared with their family and the village.
"Alaska Natives firmly believe and support efforts to preserve the African elephant. However, we do not believe efforts should affect the Alaska Native ivory artists," she said.
Individual state bans could make residents fearful of prosecution for bringing home legally acquired ivory from Alaska. Worl said she's seen tourists leave cruise ships in Alaska and avoid all ivory products.