Activists Hope Americans Develop a Crush on Ending Ivory Sales
NEW YORK—Scores of illegal ivory trinkets moved up a conveyor belt angled toward the sky, from palm-size figurines to ornate tabletop sculptures to entire tusks with intricate carven detail—2,700 pounds of it, in all. At the top of the ramp, each piece tumbled into a massive, roaring rock crusher, which turned all the contraband into a hail of dust and grit.
This loud demonstration briefly transformed Times Square into ground zero in the fight to save endangered elephants on Friday morning, as hundreds gathered under New York City’s sultry June sun to witness the destruction of illegal ivory and call for an end to the rampant slaughter of elephants for their tusks.
So, Why Should You Care? Skyrocketing consumer demand for ivory knickknacks and collectibles, mostly in China and the United States, is fueling a poaching crisis that is on the verge of driving elephants extinct across most of their African range. The international coalition of law enforcement officials and conservation groups that staged Friday’s spectacle hope the demonstration will help curb the appeal of ivory goods and show other nations that at both state and federal levels, the U.S. is committed to ending the illegal ivory market.
Ivory bans in the U.S. form a confusing tangle of state and federal laws. While the Obama administration banned most commercial ivory imports in 2014, the rule left some forms of ivory legal for importation and sale. New Jersey and New York banned all ivory sales in 2014; California is considering such a ban.
“As long as there’s demand for ivory, there’s going to be poaching,” said Jan Vertefeuille, head of campaigns for the World Wildlife Fund. “U.S. consumers need to reframe how they think about ivory. It’s the remains of dead elephants who were illegally killed.”
Conservationists have estimated that until recently, poachers were killing an average of 96 elephants in sub-Saharan Africa every day for their tusks. “That may be a bit lower now, because there are less elephants,” said Joe Walston of the Wildlife Conservation Society. But if the slaughter stops now, the elephant population could still recover. “If you just don’t kill them and give them enough space, they’ll be fine” and able to rebuild their numbers, Walston said.
Vertefeuille praised China’s signal, made during a crush of 1.5 tons of confiscated ivory in May, that it intends to end legal sales of ivory. “We’d like to see a timeline, but it was an extraordinary announcement,” she said.
Globally, the illegal ivory trade is worth around $17 billion to $20 billion a year, said Ed Grace, deputy assistant director of law enforcement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It’s no longer a crime of opportunity. It’s a transnational crime involving organized criminal groups,” he said. “Our goal is to take down these large-scale trading networks.”
Most of the ivory destroyed on Friday was seized from just one dealer, said Grace. Victor Gordon is serving a 30-month prison sentence after he smuggled more than 400 pieces of elephant ivory into the U.S. over at least nine years via New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, then sold it for tens of thousands of dollars.
At $1,500 to $3,000 a pound, “ivory is worth more than gold, heroin, or cocaine,” said Grace. “Every item on that table represents an elephant that had to die for a tourist trinket.” Destroying it signals that the U.S. is committed to enforcing its laws against the trade, he said.
Successful ivory seizures, prosecutions, and crushes are giving people new hope that elephants in the wild can be saved, as well as propelling the passage of state ivory bans, said John Calvelli, an executive vice president with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
A joint investigation by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Wildlife Conservation Society recently found that hundreds of ivory products, including complete tusks, were for sale on Craigslist sites across the country. While ivory is on Craigslist’s list of prohibited items, it’s unclear that the organization takes any other steps to halt such sales.
However, “New York City had the lowest number of ivory pieces of any other city” in the U.S., Calvelli said, and stores near Times Square that openly displayed ivory objects just a few years ago don’t sell them anymore. “That shows the law is working.”
Making live elephants more valuable than dead ones is also key, Calvelli said. WCS has worked with the Tanzanian government to pair conservation with economic benefits. “There’s a robust wildlife tourism industry now that didn’t exist when elephants were hunted out,” he said. Many African leaders are now demanding that China and the U.S. curb ivory demand, realizing that “when you kill these elephants, you’re destroying your economic base.”
Speaking before the crush got under way, Calvelli asked everyone in the crowd to do something to save elephants. He backed it up with a passage from the new encyclical by Pope Francis on climate and the environment: “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”
“These are incredibly intelligent animals. These are matriarchal societies that mourn their dead,” Calvelli told reporters afterward. “It doesn’t matter how old or young you are—you have a vested interest in this.”
This story is presented by Pivot, the sister company of TakePart.com and a division of Participant Media.