Illegal ivory trafficking isn’t just overseas… Here’s what Americans are doing about it.
Opposition to elephant poaching is really important for elephant conservation, but most of the issues occur where elephants actually roam wild: in Africa and Asia, right? Not quite. 30,000 elephants are poached annually in order to feed an illegal market hungry for ivory… and the United States is the second-biggest player in this black market for wildlife trade. Because elephants are protected by law through CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), the US has held a ban on most ivory importation since 1990. Since then, the government has confiscated large amounts of illegal ivory. Some of it is used for training of wildlife special agents. The rest, 7 tons of tusks and ivory-made objects, has been destroyed by the USFWS.
Why crush ivory?
It’s hard to put an exact number on it, but it’s estimated that the amount of ivory crushed equates to more than 2,000 dead elephants. Isn’t that a huge waste to destroy so many tusks, jewelry and carved figurines? Not if you consider the message that it sends to wildlife traffickers trying use the US as a market for illegally traded animal parts. So far, the US has held two “Ivory Crushes”. The first, held in Denver in 2013, crushed 6 tons of ivory while the second was in Times Square, New York in 2015 and destroyed one ton. The ivory that was crushed (literally loaded onto a conveyor belt and sent through a machine that ground it into powder) had been in the possession of the USFWS and was off the market, so destroying it didn’t create any additional demand for ivory. What it did do, hopefully, is send a message loud and clear to traffickers that the US does not tolerate the illegal ivory trade and isn’t afraid to crack down on it.
Both of the Ivory Crushes were highly publicized events, so they also served as a way for the public to take a stand against elephant poaching. About 1,500 people attended the 2015 event, including some celebrities. The #IvoryCrush hashtag was created to help get the word out on social media. Because the US market is the second-largest (after China) for ivory, it’s also important to raise awareness and send the message that behind every carved trinket there is a dead elephant. Elephant poaching will decrease only when consumer demand is greatly reduced. Of course, the black market for ivory is complicated and shady but in addition to the huge elephant death toll each year, poaching also fuels corruption and terrorist organizations like Boko Haram that prey upon both African and international communities.
The US isn’t the only country to have hosted an ivory crush event; other nations including the Philippines, Kenya, Zambia, Gabon, China and France have all held their own versions of the Ivory Crush. Kenya held the inaugural ivory destruction ceremony in 1989 when 13 tons was destroyed. While the ivory that was crushed had been confiscated throughout the years since the late 1980s, the time period from 2011-2014 has been the bloodiest for elephants, with the highest rate of poaching ever. Most of the ivory that was pulverized in the 2015 Ivory Crush came from an undercover bust of a Philadelphia antiques dealer who had been involved in the ivory trade. The rest of the ivory was seized by law enforcement throughout the 1990s and 2000s in large-scale smuggling operation busts and from travelers who either didn’t know the ivory importation laws or attempted to break them. Ivory that wasn’t destroyed in the crush is used as training materials for law enforcement dogs and personnel such as US Customs.
What happened to the crushed ivory?
The USFWS hosted a contest to encourage people to submit ideas for what should be done with the seven tons of crushed ivory. The contest rules stipulated that the ivory couldn’t be used in a design that made it more valuable or glorified the ivory itself because one purpose of the crush was to represent ivory as worthless. The winners of the Ivory Crush Design Challenge will have their ideas on display as an exhibit sponsored by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Just like the ivory crush itself, the hope is that the ivory on public display will help get the message across that ethical ivory is ivory still attached to an elephant. The design challenge winners, Kelly Lance and Jacqueline Nott, created plans for large pieces that demonstrate the huge magnitude of ivory that was crushed. Nott’s piece, an hourglass sculpture filled with ivory that can be turned by the user, incorporates ammunition cartridges to represent the number of elephants killed each day. The designs are still in the works and haven’t been completed yet, but the hope is that they will help get the message across to the public.
Since the Ivory Crush….
In June 2016, the US enacted a near-total ban on the domestic sale of African ivory. While the CITES law included protections for importing and exporting ivory across the nation’s borders, most interstate trade was still legal. By limiting the trade opportunities for smugglers and traffickers in the US, the hope is that the illegal market will be damaged even more. This is great news for elephants, and the thousands of people who are harmed by elephant poaching—victims of organized crime and the park rangers who are killed trying to protect elephants. The new regulations will help law enforcement agents better distinguish legal ivory from illegal ivory in the United States.
Knowing the laws about the US ivory trade can help you potentially spot shady situations right here at home. Sometimes, you can save elephants with no passport required!