In San Francisco, a hub of ivory sales, sales of tusks flourish ahead of proposed US crackdown

Ivory dealers in San Francisco's Chinatown stood in their shop doors next to windows full of carved ivory tusks and trinkets, unfazed by proposed federal rules that the White House says go as far as possible to ban the U.S. trade of ivory from the world's endangered elephants.

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"Wooly mammoth ivory," not elephant ivory, Michael Rasoyli said this week of the carved tusks for sale in the store he manages.

"Cow bone," Virginia Lo, manager of a Chinatown shop next door, said of the half-dozen curved tusks up to 4 ½ feet long that she was selling.

Those claims are a ruse, according to opponents of the global trade in elephant ivory. San Francisco and Los Angeles make up two of the country's top three hubs for ivory sales, and most dealers in the state rely on intentional mislabeling to cover up the illegal sale of recently poached African elephants, wildlife groups and some ivory experts say.

The proposed federal rules would not close the mislabeling loopholes, ivory opponents say, but a bill before state lawmakers would narrow them in California by banning ivory-like material from many animals, advocates say.

The regulations, announced by Obama on Saturday during his state visit to Kenya, would limit most interstate trade in elephant ivory to antiques that the seller can prove are at least a century old, and to items, such as gunstocks with ivory inlay, that include only a small percentage of ivory overall.

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In Chinatown, German tourist Heike Dietrich stopped cold at the sight of the tusks — carved into reliefs of elephants and other African wildlife — on display Monday at Rasoyli's store.

"I can't believe it," Dietrich said, leaning in for a closer look. "It's forbidden. Everybody knows the elephants are endangered. They massacre them to get these?"

Surging demand for ivory among China's growing middle class has spurred poaching that has decimated elephant herds in Africa. Tanzania said last month that ivory hunters had killed 60 percent of the country's elephants in just five years. Mozambique reported a 48 percent decline in elephants in the same period.

After China, the United States is the world's largest consumer of ivory, as well as a key conduit for ivory sales internationally, according to wildlife groups.

Typically, poached elephant ivory coming into the U.S. is mixed with legal lookalikes — hippo, mammoth, or plastic ivory facsimiles — and labeled as mammoth, Kenya-based ivory researcher Daniel Stiles wrote last year for the National Resources Defense Council environmental group.

Thawing of Arctic permafrost is bringing an increasing number of tusks of long-dead wooly mammoth to global markets, but Stiles estimated that up to 90 percent of ivory on sale last year in Los Angeles and 80 percent on sale then in San Francisco was illegal elephant ivory.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, asked about the difficulty of discerning ivory of the extinct wooly mammoth from that of illegally killed African elephants, said the agency requires a trained scientist to positively identify the species from which any carved ivory object originated.

Outside the federal rules, some states are taking a hard line to curtail illegal ivory.

New York, which wildlife officials call the country's biggest ivory market, banned the sale of most elephant ivory, mammoth tusks and rhinoceros horns last year.

In California, Democratic Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins authored legislation this year to ban sales of ivory-like material from animals ranging from elephants and wooly mammoths to wart hogs and whales. The bill passed the Assembly and is now before a Senate committee.

The California legislation "closes loopholes that have allowed the illegal sale of ivory to continue," Atkins said in an email Monday. "By closing these gaps in existing law, we can help shut down the California market and save thousands of elephants and rhinos every year."

In Chinatown, store manager Yail Levi pulled from an office desk a document bearing what he said were the stamps and emblem of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He could send it with any ivory purchase to attest to its provenance from wooly mammoths, he said.

"For the last 10 years, we sell only mammoth ivory," Levi said.

He declined to allow The Associated Press to photograph the document. And while the shop had import documents for the carved ivory pieces, he said he could not show them.

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Associated Press writer Julia Horowitz contributed to this report.