By Kate Wong
On a clear day outside Denver, dust filled the air surrounding an industrial rock crusher as it pulverized nearly six tons of confiscated elephant ivory. Loader trucks dumped batch after batch of whole tusks, elaborately carved figurines, bracelets and other baubles into the giant blue crusher, which spit them out as a stream of fragments that resembled remnants of seashells pounded by heavy surf. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) destroyed the 25 years’ worth of ivory seizures—a quantity that could command perhaps $12 million on the black market–to signal to the world that the U.S. will not tolerate elephant poaching or wildlife crime in general. For many attendees, the crush was also a funeral of sorts for the more than 2,000 elephants that were slaughtered for the ivory that ended up here in Colorado.
The U.S. is not the first country to destroy its seized ivory. In 1989, Kenya responded to rampant elephant poaching by burning its stockpile. More recently, with poaching surging to record levels of 30,000 elephants or more a year, Gabon and the Philippines have destroyed their ivory, too. The U.S. ivory crush on November 14 followed President Obama’s July 1 executive order calling on government agencies to step up efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade.
Concerns over the trade have been escalating not only because of the dramatic spike in elephant deaths but because of who is doing the killing. In contrast to the elephant poaching crisis of the 1980s, which resulted mainly from opportunistic hunting carried out by individuals, the current crisis is the work of transnational criminal syndicates that traffic in wildlife just as they traffic in humans, drugs and arms. Profits from the illegal sale of ivory, rhinoceros horn and other wildlife products–a $19-billion-a-year industry–are now known to fund terrorist and other extremist groups.
Yet whether the destruction of ivory stockpiles will actually help stamp out the trade is a matter of some debate. Critics contend that it may actually have the opposite effect. By reducing the ivory supply, such events will drive the price up and thus stimulate the poaching of even more elephants, so the argument goes.
Experts from government and nongovernment organizations who spoke at the U.S. ivory crush event defended the decision to destroy the stockpile. Peter Knights of WildAid, a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in San Francisco, observed that people who argue against the destruction of ivory stockpiles think that having a legal supply is the answer to the poaching problem. But attempts to flood the market with ivory in the past have had disastrous results, actually increasing poaching rather than curbing it. “I think we have to look at history and we have to learn this lesson,” he said. “People need to understand this is just as heinous a crime as consumption of heroin or something like that. We don’t put heroin back on the market when we seize it.” More....