While sporting cowboy boots made from elephant skin may be a murky ethical choice, it is not necessarily illegal. To protect wild elephant populations, the rules on the sale and ownership of elephant products are strict. If you bought your boots from a retailer that has the appropriate permits to import elephant products for sale -- or if the elephant leather arrived in the United States prior to the enactment of restrictive laws and treaties -- you can own them. Otherwise, you may be on shaky legal ground.
Laws Protecting Elephants
The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have regulations that restrict the import, sale and ownership of elephant products. Of most concern are elephant tusks, on which most of the lucrative-but-illegal ivory trade is based. Increased demand for ivory has driven up its value, which in turn, has led to a rise in the poaching, or the illegal killing, of elephants. It is currently illegal to import elephant ivory into the United States or any country that is a party to CITES -- with a few very narrow exceptions.
African or Asian
While African elephants are currently listed as "threatened," according to CITES and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Asian elephant remains endangered. The endangered status -- and listing in Appendix I of CITES -- of the Asian subspecies means that no products made from these elephants can be legally sold or owned in the United States. On the other hand, certain populations of African elephants must be culled to protect their habitats from overpopulation. Controlled culling of designated herds is both legal and necessary for the well-being of the elephants. Companies that obtain CITES permits can purchase and resell certain products, such as hides, from legally killed animals.
If you legally hunted and killed an elephant yourself, you may be able to bring home its hide and tusks. Under current law, the United States permits you to import hunted elephant products as trophy products from four countries: Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. First, you need an export permit from the CITES office in the country where the elephant was killed. If you obtain such a permit for export, you then need to get an import permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Boots with Long Memories
Under the Endangered Species Act, ivory and other elephant products that are considered antiques, which means they are more than 100 years old, or products that you obtained before the ESA was passed in 1978, are grandfathered in and legal to own for non-commercial purposes. So, if you are wearing your grandfather's elephant skin boots, which he wore in the 1950s, you can continue to wear them. You can keep them in the family and pass them down to your own grandchildren, but you can't sell them.