On October 8, the U.S. government will destroy six million tons of ivory that is now stored in a warehouse outside of Denver. Publicly crushing the huge store of elephant tusks, sculptures and more is intended to send a very clear statement of how serious the United States is about fighting the $10 billion wildlife trafficking industry.
If poaching continues at the current rate — as many as 96 African elephants a day were killed last year, a total of 35,000 — elephants could disappear from Africa in a decade.
Wildlife parts seized at border crossing, airports and seaports are held at the National Wildlife Property Repository, at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City. As the Denver Post says, some of the seized tusks that will be crushed are from young elephants and bear sad witness to a ”generations lost.” Elephants cannot reproduce until they are over 25 years old; poachers usually kill them prior to sawing off their tusks.
As Steve Oberholtzer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special-agent-in-charge, says in the Denver Post, ”the only way to end this trade is to get international support. That’s the goal of what we’re doing with this crush.”
The Obama administration’s plan to destroy tons of seized ivory stems from the President’s July 1 executive order to stop the killing of protected wildlife, put a halt to trafficking and decrease demand for illegal rhino horns and ivory. $10 million is being dedicated to fight poaching in Africa.
The United States is also seeking to convince African governments to outlaw the sale of ivory trinkets and other items; undertaking a social media campaign in China (where the majority of ivory sold is of “questionable origin”); seeking to work with companies including eBay to halt commerce in items made from ivory and creating a new advisory council of former administration officials and conservation and business leaders to oversee a crackdown on illegal poaching syndicates.
Harsher penalties for wildlife trafficking are also under consideration. There are plenty of American buyers for, and sellers of, ivory. Last year, two Manhattan jewelry dealers pleaded guilty to illegal ivory trading. Earlier this year, a New Mexico man was indicted by a federal grand jury in Pensacola, Florida for the illegal sale of two African elephant tusks.
Can Crushing Seized Ivory Deter Poaching?
Other countries have destroyed massive amounts of seized ivory to send a message to poachers. Back in 1989, Kenya’s President Daniel Arap Moi, with Kenya Wildlife Service Director Richard Leakey beside him, set fire to 13 tons of ivory. Earlier this year, Philippines crushed 15 million tons of seized ivory under industrial rollers.
The slaughter of elephants and rhinos has nonetheless continued. But conservationists say that the United States’ plans to destroy its stockpile of seized ivory will hurt the illegal trade in ivory. Keeping such a huge store of ivory amounts to harboring a “time bomb” that contributes to keeping prices high for trafficked goods and makes it unclear whether governments are really serious about banning the ivory trade.
U.S. authorities cannot resell seized items; even if they could do so, it is unlikely that this would affect the illegal market. Sell-offs of ivory were held in 2008 and 2010, with the support of the 178-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, but these were deemed controversial.
Wildlife Trafficking is a National Security Issue
At a White House event on Monday, at which the plan to crush the United States’ seized ivory store was announced with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton present, interior secretary Sally Jewell also emphasized that wildlife trafficking must be seen not only as a conservation issue but one of national security. State department issues are now referring to wildlife trafficking as a national security crisis, with profits from the illegal ivory trade funding extremist movements, including affiliates of al-Qaida in Somalia.
As to what the United States plans to do with the huge pile of ivory dust that it will be left with in October: federal authorities say that some of the crushed ivory will be used to create a somber memorial, in Washington D.C. or elsewhere, to remember the vast number of elephants killed for their tusks.
Photo of ivory goods seized at NYC's JFK Airport via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Regino