Will Crushing Up 12,000 Pounds of Ivory Really Slow Elephant Poaching?

The U.S. government’s plan to destroy thousands of pounds of illegal ivory might send a message to elephant poachers, but it’s buyers who need to be educated.

Illegal Ivory Trade: Will Crushing Up 12,000 Pounds of Ivory Really Slow Elephant Poaching?

(Photo: Bobby Yip/Reuters)

Richard Conniff is the author of 'The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth' and other books.

Later this week, at a facility outside Denver, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will take almost six tons of contraband ivory, the final remains of several thousand elephants, and crush it down to worthless dust. It will be in part a ritual gesture of protest, though there’s not much poetry in an industrial rock crusher.

The logic of the ivory crush is straightforward: “Destroying this ivory,” reads a statement on the FWS website, “tells criminals who engage in poaching and trafficking that the United States will take all available measures to disrupt and prosecute those who prey on and profit from the deaths of these magnificent animals.”

These are end times for elephants in the wild. Poachers are now killing 35,000 of them a year—that’s 96 a day, or one every 15 minutes. Their tusks end up carved into ivory status symbols for Asia’s nouveaux riches. At the current rate, conservationists predict that African elephants could be extinct in the wild within 12 years. The forest elephants of West Africa are especially imperiled, having already suffered a 62 percent decline over the past decade.

The FWS action also sends a message to other nations not to seek blood money by selling their own confiscated ivory. Stockpiles in Zambia, Mozambique, and the Philippines have all experienced shrinkage, generally “as corrupt officials are paid to leak stuff out of them,” Elizabeth Bennett of the Wildlife Conservation Society told me. Seventy percent of what’s sold in China as legal ivory is in fact illegal in origin, she added. 

So why do I have reservations about the ivory crush? 

Partly it’s that we’ve all been here before. The ivory crush aims to recapture the electric effect of Kenya’s 1989 decision to turn 12 tons of contraband ivory tusks into a raging funeral pyre. The whole world took notice then, and it quickly resulted in an international ban on trade in African ivory. But that kind of grand gesture only works the first time around. 

When Gabon tried something similar in 2012 and the Philippines did it early this year, hardly anyone noticed. (No one burns ivory anymore, by the way, because the flames leave most of the tusk intact. Hence the switch to crushing.) The only way to achieve the Kenya effect again would be to up the ante. To suggest a wildly unlikely example, if New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to toss the Byzantine ivories into the crusher by way of protest, the world would undoubtedly take note.

The other problem with the ivory crush is that Kenya’s gesture only managed to slow the poaching. Nor did the resulting ban on trade in 1989 completely stop it. Africa had 600,000 elephants in 1989. It has fewer than 470,000 today, mostly because of partial lifts to the ban in 1999 and again in 2008. ''To stop the poacher, the trader must also be stopped, and to stop the trader, the final buyer must be convinced not to buy ivory,'' Kenya’s then president, Daniel arap Moi, declared the day he set the ivory aflame. He had a point: The problem with gestures like the ivory crush is that they focus on the supply side. They may gratify the righteous outrage of elephant lovers everywhere, but the real challenge is to stop the demand for ivory. The dramatic rise in poaching over the past few years correlates closely with the enormous expansion of wealth in China and other “tiger” economies of Asia.  

How do we get to those end users?

"There are lots of ideas out there, none of them yet proven," Elizabeth Bennett told me. "We’re working through social media in China, trying to get people to like elephants and recognize what the ivory trade does to them." Yao Ming, the former National Basketball Association player who is China’s most famous athlete, has made public service announcements on behalf of elephants, and leading elephant conservation group Save the Elephants brought Chinese superstar Li Bingbing to Kenya to see the effects of poaching up close and spread the message back home. The aim is to stigmatize the craving for ivory objects.

It is important work, and it may eventually produce results. The children or grandchildren of the people who are now pushing Africa’s elephants toward extinction will no doubt someday wake up to the tragedy of what their forebears have done. Those precious and beautifully carved ivory knickknacks may in time survive not as symbols of a family’s status but as a mark of its shame.  

Or maybe some unpredictable shift in taste will end the killing of elephants. Maybe owning a David Hockney silkscreen, or a Zhang Xiaogang (he’s China’s most celebrated contemporary artist)—or even just a new iPhone—will displace ivory as a leading status symbol. But at the present rate of killing, it will almost certainly be too late for the elephants. 

In that context, the ivory crush risks becoming just another media event. What we need to get real change now is rapid and decisive legal action. That means tightening up the incredibly lax and loophole-prone business of controlling trade in ivory. It means imposing real economic and political penalties on countries that are culprits in the trade. 

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) belatedly started that process at its meeting last March, when it threatened sanctions against eight problem countries unless they came up with a plan of action to end illegal trade in ivory. (The countries are Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda on the supply side, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines in transit, and China and Thailand on the consumer end.) 

It also stipulated that countries must complete an audited inventory of ivory stockpiles by next July. That should give you an idea of just how slow and timid the effort to end the war on elephants has been up to now. That deadline—to achieve the most rudimentary kind of accounting baseline for contraband ivory—will come almost exactly 25 years after Kenya set its stockpile of ivory in flames.   

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