By Peter Fimrite
Two elaborately carved elephant tusks stand inside a display case at the Canton Bazaar in San Francisco's Chinatown, elegant reminders of a tragic, escalating world crisis.
Booming global sales of ivory are driving the precipitous and accelerated decline of one of the world's largest, most revered mammals: the African elephant. Despite movements in the late 1980s to ban the international trade in ivory to protect the elephant, poachers kill an average of 96 African elephants a day for their tusks. That's one every 15 minutes.
And Chinatown is one the top spots to buy ivory in the United States, which ranks second - behind China - on the list of nations with the biggest ivory markets, according to experts.
The killing in Africa is so extensive that the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife this year announced that it is beginning to tighten regulations to ban the import of ivory or elephant tusks for commercial purposes.
The new rules allow ivory already here to be commercially sold only if the seller can prove that the ivory is more than 100 years old or obtained before 1976.
The problem is, experts say, that there is often no way to determine how old ivory is or how long ago the elephant was killed, especially if the ivory has been carved or sculpted - thus it's difficult to differentiate between legally obtained ivory and poached ivory.
76 percent decline
Over the past few decades, the overall elephant population has declined 76 percent, all because of the demand for their tusks, which can be sold for $1,500 a pound on the global black market.
Meanwhile, the international ivory trade is the primary funding source for many terrorist groups, according to regulators and wildlife conservationists.
Although the market is primarily driven by China, where carved ivory is a traditional status symbol and where a growing middle class has heightened demand, the U.S. market is significant. San Francisco is second to New York for ivory imports, according to federal authorities.
"Compared to what is being imported into China and Thailand, we are far below that, but the fact that we are the No. 2 importer is significant," said Gina Kinzley, the elephant keeper at the Oakland Zoo, which is working with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Wildlife Conservation Society on what is called the 96 Elephants campaign, a name that emphasizes the daily death toll in an attempt to mobilize people to push for stronger laws against and penalties for the illegal transport of ivory.
"You can't justify it," said Kinzley, who plans to lead the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos on Oct. 4 along Market Street in San Francisco. "Poaching needs to stop. We need to stop the demand for ivory."
The message does not appear to be sinking in. Carved ivory trinkets and elaborate sculptures are on display in shops throughout Chinatown, and large tusks are in the front windows of at least two stores on Grant Avenue.
"It's been here a long time. When I was a little kid, it was here," said Derek Wong, a 34-year-old employee at the Canton Bazaar, pointing to the Chinese warriors, fishermen, monks and other figures carved into the tusks, which were next to numerous other ivory trinkets made in China. A card in the display case said it was "genuine ivory" and explained how the recent decline of elephants has made ivory "more valuable and expensive."
Tony Koren, the vice president of Michael Fine Art, on Grant near Bush Street, said the tusks in his store window are from extinct 10,000-year-old mammoths, not elephants. Some of the others were carved cow bone, he said, repeating what several shop owners said about their toys, trinkets and traditional Chinese sex position figurines.
"We don't sell elephant ivory anymore and haven't sold it for more than a decade," Koren said. "There's not demand for it, and a lot of times it turns off the customers."
Experts doubt the ivory trade in San Francisco has dried up as much as the shopkeepers claim. A 2008 study found 45 outlets in San Francisco selling 2,587 items made out of ivory. Ivory sales were also booming in Los Angeles, where 2,605 ivory items were being sold at 170 outlets. As much as 68 percent of those items could have been illegal, according to researchers.
Kinzley, who has traveled to Africa three times to conduct elephant studies, said that without more inspectors and sophisticated testing, it will continue to be very difficult to tell the difference between antique ivory and recently imported ivory, which can be colored to make it look antique.
Federal agents say they have seized 6 tons of ivory smuggled into the United States over the past 25 years. Kinzley said that is only about 10 percent of illegal ivory sales.
The accelerating rate of killing over the past decade does not indicate there has been any slowdown in demand. In 2012 alone, 35,000 elephants were slaughtered in Africa for their ivory. In May, poachers northwest of Mombasa used poison arrows to kill a beloved elephant named Satao, one of the largest elephants in Africa. Satao's massive ivory tusks, which weighed more than 200 pounds, were hacked off.
"We soon found him, out in the open - splayed and alone," wrote Mark Deeble, a wildlife filmmaker who had kept tabs on the majestic giant and was moved to tears by his death. "Where glorious red Tsavo soil had once patterned his skin, it was now white-painted with vulture feces. For the first time in my life, I found it difficult to take any consolation in death bringing a bounty for the scavengers, and a resurrection for the soil. It was just a terrible sight."
Deeble and his compatriots circled in a helicopter over the carcass and realized, to their horror, that Satao wasn't alone.
"We couldn't believe what we were seeing - it was a killing field," he wrote in his blog. "They were all carcasses of large bulls and recently poached."
The pachyderm population in Africa has dropped from an estimated 1.3 million in 1979 to about 400,000 today. If the killing continues, wildlife experts say, African elephants will be extinct within 10 or 15 years.
Asian elephants are also in trouble, with only about 30,000 of them left, mainly because of habitat loss. Their tusks aren't as sought after as their African cousins, but poachers in Thailand this past month killed and sawed off the tusks of a 50-year-old elephant regularly used in royal processions and famous for his role in the 2004 Oliver Stone movie "Alexander."
The plight of rhinos is just as dire. Three of the world's five rhinoceros species are listed as "critically endangered." About 400 rhinos were killed for their horns in South Africa the first few months of this year. Rhino horn, which is wrongly believed to have medicinal properties, can sell in Asian countries for $25,000 a pound.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that there is "growing evidence that the terrorist groups stalking Africa" are funding their activities "to a great extent from ivory trafficking."
'Just so devastating'
The plight of the elephants is particularly troubling for Kinzley, who knows firsthand how smart and sensitive the lumbering behemoths are. She said elephants form complex matriarchal societies, mourn their dead and are known to be self-aware. Elephants in the wild use rocks or sticks to scratch themselves and will carry a log over to where it can be used as a stool to reach up higher. Captive elephants have been taught to paint, can identify themselves in the mirror and even notice changes in their appearance, like paint dots secretly placed on their foreheads in experiments.
"Elephants are so emotionally complex and intelligent. It is just so devastating what is happening to them," she said. "They are absolutely key to the survival of the habitat as a whole."
Next to the large tusks at the Canton Bazaar was a smaller pair. Wong did not know where they came from or when, but he believes they too were acquired long before the ivory ban.
"It looks like they killed a baby elephant for this," he said, gesturing toward the small white tusks. "That's not right."