Ivory should have 'less value than dirt'

An auction house owner wants the federal government to impose a ban on Australia's rhino horn trade.
An auction house owner wants the federal government to impose a ban on Australia's rhino horn trade.

It wasn't until Veronica Owens watched a David Attenborough TV episode on poaching that she realised she was playing a part in the slaughter of elephants and rhinos.

The Sydney auction house owner recalls feeling sick to her stomach when she understood, through trading ivory and rhino horns, she was contributing to the demise of the pachyderms.

"I couldn't work out why I was feeling sick ... I knew I was part of that process," Owens tells AAP.

Soon after, Bargain Hunt Auctions stopped trading the items, and eight years later, while Owens says she's lost "hundreds of thousands of dollars" from ivory and rhino horn sales, she's never looked back.

She's also hopeful that one day the federal government will impose a complete ban on Australia's domestic ivory and rhino horn trade - a market that is currently unregulated.

While Australia has a ban on ivory imports, it is legal to buy and sell ivory items domestically.

A joint parliamentary committee inquiry is underway looking into the country's regulations and whether federal laws allow newly poached ivory and horns to be passed off as antiques.

The Department of Environment and Energy in July revealed during an inquiry hearing that it "does not regulate domestic sales of items containing elephant ivory and rhino horn".

The International Fund for Animal Welfare, which has been monitoring the domestic trade in Australia for the past five years, found only eight per cent of ivory and rhino horn items sold had documentation to prove their authenticity and age.

IFAW revealed the lax regulations meant some customers were trying to pass off newly poached ivory and horns as antiques by rubbing them with tea bags to make them look older.

It's a practice that John Albrecht from Leonard Joel auction house, believes is widespread.

"Increased scrutiny is only going to encourage more desperate behaviour," he tells AAP.

Prior to 2017, Leonard Joel was the number one auction house trading in ivory in the country.

Now, Albrecht's goal is for ivory to have "no more value than dirt".

The major auction house, based in Sydney and Melbourne, was selling up to $300,000 of ivory each year before IFAW's 2016 report on the trade became Albrecht's "epiphany".

He stopped trading in ivory and rhino horn in early 2017.

As the biggest traders in the country, he says they had the most to lose but it had no commercial impact on the business.

"There are museums all over the world that have copious amounts of these things and we just don't need to sell these things anymore," Albrecht says.

"No single antique dealer in the country could claim that they depend on ivory trade."

Albrecht, like Owens, has called for a complete ban similar to the one imposed in the United Kingdom, dubbed one of the world's toughest.

It covers ivory items of all ages - not only those produced after a certain date.

British charity Tusk Trust, which counts Prince William as a patron, has been key in pushing for stronger laws with the Duke of Cambridge known for famously campaigning against the ivory trade and protecting wildlife.

IFAW Oceania regional director Rebecca Keeble says it's time for the Australian government to shut down the domestic market and follow the UK's lead.

"We do have a legal market and we are contributing to the problem," Keeble told AAP.

Labor senator Lisa Singh, who pushed for the inquiry in Australia, previously said the government had a role in enforcing the rules and its lack of regulation was a "failure".

"We need to discover if whether our current law or lack of laws are enough or are we inadvertently contributing to this global organised crime," she says.

Following the parliamentary inquiry hearings, Australia's peak body for auctioneers and valuers announced its support for the UK's new legislation.

The inquiry is expected to hand down its findings by October.

Australian Associated Press