By Suzanne Goldenberg
The ivory stockpile in the secure government warehouse - six tonnes of scarred tusks, glossy Confucius statuettes with US$10,000 (more than NZ$12,000) price stickers, coffee table items, and too many chunky cuff bracelets to count - represents millions of dollars and the slaughter of thousands of African elephants.
On November 14, at Barack Obama's instruction, and in front of visiting dignitaries and television cameras, every last intricately carved and high-dollar item will be fed into the jaws of an industrial strength rock-crushing machine and smashed to splinters.
The hope is that this public act of destruction will serve as a turning point. White House officials and conservation groups calculate that demonstrating the president's commitment to breaking up the illegal ivory trade will persuade other governments to take similar measures, and help put the wildlife traffickers on the run.
But it may be too late. Two decades after an international ban on ivory sales, an explosion in wildlife trafficking has once again brought African elephants to the brink of extinction. Nearly 100 African elephants are killed every day for their tusks to feed a huge demand for ivory trinkets from newly wealthy buyers in Asia who see ivory as a status symbol.
US security officials say the global trade in illegal ivory has grown to US$10 billion a year - just behind drugs and human trafficking. The huge profit potential has also turned ivory into an important line of financing for terrorist networks such as al-Shabaab, the al Qaeda affiliate that carried out September's attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi.
"This is not the kind of poaching that we have dealt with in the past," said Dan Ashe, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency leading the US fight against wildlife trafficking. "It's syndicated and sophisticated criminal organisations that are driving the trade."
The grisly results are visible in the vast storehouse outside Denver - ordinarily off-limits to the public - where six tonnes of ivory seized by US law enforcement officials over the past 25 years is heaped among stuffed tigers, caiman ashtrays, and other artifacts of the illegal wildlife trade. More....