The United States banned the domestic trade of elephant ivory on Tuesday as part of a new drive to help African countries stem the rising threat to wildlife from poachers.
The White House administrative action prohibits all commercial imports of African elephant ivory, including antiques, and all commercial exports -- except for bona fide antiques and certain other items.
The outlawed ivory trade is mostly fueled by demand in Asia and the Middle East, where elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns are used in traditional medicine and to make ornaments. Poaching has risen sharply in Africa in recent years where, besides targeting rhinos, gangs have slaughtered whole herds of elephants for their tusks.
"This ban is the best way to help ensure that US markets do not contribute to the further decline of African elephants in the wild," the White House said in a statement.
It said federal departments and agencies would immediately take actions to, among other things, clarify what constitutes an antique.
"To qualify as an antique, an item must be more than 100 years old and meet other requirements under the Endangered Species Act."
"The onus will now fall on the importer, exporter, or seller to demonstrate that an item meets these criteria."
Other measures include limiting to two the number of African elephant sport-hunted trophies that can be imported by an individual each year. The crackdown on ivory is a key aspect of a new national strategy for combating wildlife trafficking, also unveiled Tuesday, that has been in the works for some time.
During a trip to Tanzania last year, President Barack Obama signed an executive order for a $10 million program to reduce the practice in Africa. That led to the setting up of a task force to develop the strategy to crack down on the lucrative trade -- estimated to be worth between $7 and $10 billion a year.
"The United States will continue to lead global efforts to protect the world's iconic animals and preserve our planet's natural beauty for future generations," the White House said.
Senior administration officials said the United States is one of the world's largest markets for wildlife products, both legal and illegal.
"Much of the trafficking in ivory and other wildlife products either passes through or ends up in the United States and so we are committed to putting an end to the illegal trade in elephant ivory and also other wildlife products," one official told reporters on a conference all.
Another said that, under the ban, it would be legal to own items made from ivory and gift these to your children or children -- but it would not be legal to sell them.
"We are facing a situation where rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold. Elephant ivory is going for as much as $1,500 a pound," the official said.
"So we believe that an outright ban on domestic trade in ivory and rhino horn is appropriate because it will help us be more effective in law enforcement and it will demonstrate a US leadership worldwide."
"We can't ask other consumer nations to crack down on their domestic trade and markets unless we're prepared to the same here at home."
The official said there are less than half a million elephants on the African continent today and "estimates are that we are losing as many as 35,000 elephants per year."