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Can the U.S. Pulverize Poaching?
Last week the government destroyed six tons of seized ivory in an effort to get tough on the illegal wildlife trade. Can similar efforts worldwide save elephants from extinction?

When a behemoth stone crusher revved into action last week and pulverized six tons of illegal ivory seized and stockpiled by government agents over the last 25 years, the Fish and Wildlife Service was hoping to send a message to poachers: the United States has zero tolerance for illegal ivory trafficking.

It’s a message that’s badly needed, considering that the United States is the world’s second-largest consumer—just after China—of banned wildlife products, including ivory. Globally, poachers killed more than 30,000 elephants for their tusks last year, and if the hunting continues at current rates, experts say that wild elephants may go extinct in some African countries within a decade.

Other charismatic species—and some not-so-charismatic ones—face similar extinction threats. Rhinos suffered a 5000-percent increase in poaching between 2007 and 2012; 825 have been killed this year in South Africa alone. Likewise, conservationists estimate that only about 3,200 tigers remain in the wild. Over the last decade, 1,000 of the big cats have been killed to satiate consumer demand in Asia for tiger fur, bones, eyes, whiskers, genitalia, and teeth.

Some of the confiscated tusks destroyed Thursday were ornately carved with exotic jungle scenes; others were as raw as the day they were brutally taken from the elephants.

As the poaching crisis has escalated—largely due to a growing Asian middle class that values luxury products—Kenya, Gabon, and the Philippines have destroyed their confiscated ivory. Now the United States is giving it a try. “If this snowballs into more crushes and moratoriums,” says Jeff Flocken, the North American regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, “then we know it had an effect.”

Last Thursday’s dramatic display—in which a mountain of ornately carved elephant tusks and various other ivory figurines were ground to dust under a cloudless Colorado sky—represents something of a paradigm shift for the United States. Until recently, the black market in illegal animal products was largely ignored by everyone except for conservationists and a few overburdened agents assigned to combat the trade.

That changed last year, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—who has expressed a personal passion to stop poaching—delivered a call to action on the illegal wildlife trade. After a trip to Africa where he convened with local leaders to discuss the issue, President Obama followed up in July with executive order to combat the trafficking, which resulted in a Presidential Task Force.

The ivory destroyed last week was designed to provide a visual exposé of both the problem and America’s new commitment to solving it. And the world’s media pounced. Reporters and camera crews from across the globe flocked to the Denver prairie to witness the stockpile’s obliteration, while anti-poaching celebrities like Sex and the City’s Kristin Davis and True Blood’s Kristin Bauer van Straten tweeted about the event and gave on-site interviews. Also following the news over social media was First Lady Margaret Kenyatta of Kenya, a hotbed of ivory poaching, who congratulated the United States and called for stricter bans on ivory.

The six-ton stockpile—now an off-white pile of rubble—represents only about 10 percent of the ivory that crossed our borders over the past 25 years. Illegal ivory usually enters the country via two routes: naïve individuals who purchase the ivory abroad, not knowing it’s illegal in this country, and smugglers who hire ivory mules to supply American art dealers with black market ivory.

Ivory art pieces created prior to 1989, when the United States issued an import ban, can still be sold legally in the country. But it’s not always easy to tell what’s what. “The issue is that there’s a lot of ivory represented in the U.S. as antique, and it’s not,” says Ed Grace, a deputy assistant director at the FWS. “It’s being smuggled into the country right now, and individuals purchasing it don’t realize that.”

Members of Congress are currently reviewing a bill that would place a 10- to 15-year moratorium on all ivory sales within the United States, including on antiques. The legislation has yet to be introduced in the Senate or House, but supporters expect it could happen in the next month or so. Their hope is that the attention raised by last week’s ivory crush will add momentum for the bill’s approval and spur other countries to follow suit. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, David J. Hayes, a member of the president's Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, urged the United States to set an international example by adopting an outright ban on the sale of vanity ivory. (It’s a position that NRDC, which publishes OnEarth, also supports. For more, see legislative advocate Elly Pepper’s blog.)

Demolishing ivory supplies has worked before—at least for a little while. In 1989, at the height of another poaching crisis, Kenya burned its entire ivory stockpile, becoming the first country to undertake such a strategy. The burn got the international attention the Kenyans needed. African elephants were listed as an endangered species, international bans came into place, and the continent’s pachyderm populations recovered over the next decade.

Now “it’s like déjà vu,” says Paula Kahumbu, executive director of WildlifeDirect, a Kenyan nonprofit organization. “Elephants are again sliding into extinction.”

Critics of destroying ivory supplies often argue that flooding the market with legal ivory would satisfy demand and relieve pressure on elephant populations. Conservationists conducted such an experiment in China and Japan in 2008, putting up 102 tons of African elephant ivory for sale. Following the auction, however, demand for ivory spiked in China, with the legal ivory serving as a convenient smokescreen for laundering contraband carvings. “It was an unmitigated disaster,” says Crawford Allan, senior director of the international wildlife-monitoring organization TRAFFIC. “Now, everyone understands that these one-off sales are a problem.”

Advocates say that decisions made over the next few years will determine the fate of elephants and other species caught up in the illegal wildlife trade. “We’ll either be witnesses to this unfolding ecological disaster, or we’ll be solution makers,” says FWS Director Dan Ashe. “By crushing this ivory, we say we intend to lead the world to a solution.”

The U.S. ivory stockpile included meticulously chiseled reliefs of Chinese landscapes, stately walking canes, exuberant African figurines, and countless bangles, charms, and trinkets.

This stone crusher pulverized six tons of illegal ivory on Thursday.

The Association for Zoos and Aquariums will use the crushed ivory anti-poaching memorials.

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Rachel Nuwer is a Brooklyn-based science journalist who writes about the environment for the New York Times, Audubon, Smithsonian, and others. When not hunched over her desk, she enjoys eating swamp rats in Vietnam or avoiding alligators in her native Biloxi, Mississippi. MORE STORIES ➔