By Helen Johnstone
"One trader told undercover investigators from the charity that a lot of new ivory was coming into Britain from China, because it was 'so easy to smuggle' past Customs.
Ivory is being sold illegally in high streets across Britain, with the world's largest antique market in London "awash with it", an investigation found.
Yesterday's report on a study by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) came just days before British officials are to fly to Geneva to discuss re-opening a legal international ivory trade. Only ivory dated to before 1947 can be sold under British law, but the survey by IFAW found that not a single trader they spoke to could prove the age of the ivory they were selling.
International trading has been banned since the 1980s when Africa lost half of its elephant population to poaching. Smuggling carries a maximum sentence of seven years in jail.
However, one trader told undercover investigators from the charity that a lot of new ivory was coming into Britain from China, because it was "so easy to smuggle" past Customs. A police investigation found many antique shops were selling ivory that had been carved to look antique before being offered for sale, the report said.
Britain has been identified as the third largest source of illegal ivory entering the United States, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which is hosting the Geneva meeting, says.
The report, Elephants on the High Street, drawing on an eight-week investigation by the IFAW, says that the illegal trade makes it easier for newly poached ivory to be laundered onto the market.
Investigators, who found thousands of items on sale illegally in antique shops and markets in six towns across the country, say that the trade is out of control. Instead of providing proof of age documents required by law, traders relied on their "expert" knowledge and many sellers offered to write receipts with a supposed date of manufacture of more than 100 years old. London's Portobello Road, the world's largest antiques market, was found to be awash with dubious products.
Ivory was also found being sold illegally via internet auctions and dealers from Australia, Canada, China and the US also offered to sell ivory illegally to IFAW investigators, with some forging documents to aid sales.
The charity partially blamed widespread ignorance of the law among antique dealers, who encouraged customers to break the law.
The Geneva meeting will discuss the sale of 60 tonnes of stockpiled ivory from several African countries. IFAW fears that if governments give the sale the go-ahead it will lead to a surge in the killing of wild elephants by providing cover for the illegal ivory trade.
Phyllis Campbell-McRae, the charity's UK director, said: "I urge the British Government to think of the many elephants that will die from poacher's bullets, putting this endangered species at even more risk. Our report shows how difficult it is to control the ivory trade here."
Her fears were endorsed by the conservationist Dr Richard Leakey. He said: "It would be a truly ironic tragedy if a decision made by British politicians led to elephants in Kenya or anywhere else being gunned down for trinkets to be sold in the UK."
Andy Fisher, head of Scotland Yard's Wildlife Crime Unit, warned that re-opening the ivory trade would make it more difficult for police to get evidence to pursue the culprits.
A spokesman for the British Antique Dealers' Association, which has 400 members, said: "Not all antique dealers are selling ivory illegally. I don't condone those who are but I do not accept the problem is as widespread as the report suggests."
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd