By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - It will be illegal to sell almost all ivory products in California under a measure signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown that closes a loophole in the state's nearly 40-year-old ban on the sale of elephant ivory.
The law, which the Democratic governor signed on Sunday, will make it illegal to sell antiques containing more than a small amount of ivory in the most populous U.S. state in an effort to crack down on poaching and a black market in illegal ivory.
"When people realize that there's an ivory trade, they just want to stop it," said Elly Pepper, a wildlife advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which helped write the bill. "California is one of the top three ivory markets in the country."
California banned ivory sales in 1977, but the law allowed an exception for ivory imported or sold before then. Poachers continued to kill elephants in Africa and Asia, selling their tusks to dealers who would discolor the ivory so it looked old, said Matt Sutton, a spokesman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
"They would dip it in tea to make it look more yellowed so that it looks like it’s older," he said.
The law, which also bans the sale of rhinoceros horn in the state, follows a similar measure adopted last year in New York. The Obama administration is tightening federal rules.
International law has prohibited most ivory trade for 25 years, but wildlife advocates say poachers are slaughtering elephants by the thousands for their tusks, which sell on the black market or are disguised as antiques.
The California law, which takes effect next July, also bans the sale of ivory from other animals, such as whales or mammoths, in order to keep poachers and their middlemen from saying that illegally obtained elephant ivory is really from other animals.
The measure exempts antique jewelry and furniture with small ivory decorations that do not amount to more than 5 percent of the total volume of the piece. It also exempts musical instruments such as pianos with ivory keys that make up less than 20 percent of the volume of the instrument.
It also exempts educational institutions.
New York state outlawed the sale of ivory last year, offering exceptions only for items proven to be antique and containing only a small amount of ivory. Earlier this month, California's Legislature approved a similar measure.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Peter Cooney)