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U.S. to Destroy 6 Tons of Confiscated Ivory, Sending Message to Poachers

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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confiscated ivoryWhole elephant tusks. Carved ivory figurines and statues. Ivory knives, jewelry, chopsticks and trinkets. Six tons of this stuff, all of it illegal, sits in a secure warehouse where box after cardboard box rests alongside wooden pallets that overflow their bloody bounty onto the floor.

No, this isn’t in China or South Africa or Japan. It’s in the U.S.—Denver to be specific. That’s the site of the National Wildlife Property Repository, where illegal products seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), customs agents and other officials line the shelves and hallways. Along with ivory, the facility also holds thousands of preserved animals; handbags made from the skin of endangered species; bear paws and teeth; and just about every other wildlife product you can imagine.

The U.S. has been collecting and securing illegal ivory in Denver for 25 years. Now, following the example of countries like Gabon and the Philippines, the government will destroy it. The move, announced September 9, is part of a broader U.S. commitment to fight international wildlife trafficking and is intended to send a signal that the federal government takes poaching and smuggling seriously.

confiscated ivoryThe FWS will use rock grinders to pulverize the confiscated ivory on October 8. The event will not be open to the public. “Rising demand for ivory is fueling a renewed and horrific slaughter of elephants in Africa, threatening remaining populations across the continent,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said at a press briefing. Dan Ashe, director of the FWS, laid some of the blame on American consumers. “The United States is part of the problem, because much of the world’s trade in wild animal and plant species—both legal and illegal—is driven by U.S. consumers or passes through our ports on the way to other nations,” he said. “We have to be part of the solution.”

confiscated ivoryThe U.S. is one of the world’s largest markets for ivory, despite the fact that the international ivory trade has been outlawed since 1989. In addition to smuggled ivory many consumers pick up trinkets abroad and bring them home, unaware of or uncaring about their legal status.

The sale of ivory often helps directly or indirectly fund militant or terrorist groups such as the Janjaweed in Sudan, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and South Sudan, and Mai Mai rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Conservation groups estimate that, on average, poachers kill an elephant for its tusks every 15 minutes.

Elephant poaching and ivory smuggling reached a high in the 1970s and 1980s before nearly ceasing after international trade became illegal. But “one-off” sales of ivory stockpiles in 2007 and 2008 stimulated consumer demand once more. Further, increased affluence in Asia and improved smuggling routes have now fueled poaching and turned wildlife crime into the fourth-largest criminal enterprise worldwide.

The ivory crush represents just one impact of Pres. Barack Obama’s new Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking. The U.S. has also established a federal council on wildlife trafficking and plans to close loopholes that let illegal wildlife products slip into the country. To expand the effort beyond U.S. borders, FWS plans to work with customs and law enforcement agents around the world to improve their capacity detect trafficking and fight poaching.

Photos: Seized ivory trinkets and tusks, courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. RCWhitmyer 8:58 pm 09/10/2013

    How does destroying the ivory discourage the poachers? As long as the demand is still there the poachers will continue the killing. What’s happening to the people who deal and buy it thus create the demand? This is also true with rhino horn, etc. Cut the demand you stop the incentive for poaching and dealing in wild life.

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  2. 2. jaime.espinosa 1:07 am 09/11/2013

    Good god! Please don’t do that.

    I think poachers are the worst of humans. Their products *should* be confiscated, and they all should receive the worst penalties.

    BUT! The art and history the ivory displays (no matter how horrifying it may be) should be preserved. Perhaps, in a distant future when these animals are extinct, these pieces will be noticeable reminder of what poaching does.

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  3. 3. Scottcha 4:02 pm 09/11/2013

    This will drive up the price of ivory, delighting poachers everywhere. There must be a better solution.

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  4. 4. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 11:01 pm 09/11/2013

    That’s ridiculous, Scott. This ivory wasn’t on the market. It’s been sitting in a warehouse for up to 25 years.

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  5. 5. rusureuwant2know 1:43 pm 10/4/2013

    I have ivory carved necklaces and earrings given to my mother from years ago. I also have a small ivory carved horse given to me by my brother from when he was in the service years ago. I suppose the government would like to confiscate and destroy those as well. Is selling all ivory against the law? It may well be the only thing I have that is valuable enough to pay my burial expenses.

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  6. 6. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 3:20 pm 10/7/2013

    Antique ivory is still legal. I’d point you to a government web page saying what’s legal and what’s not, but the government shutdown means the page isn’t up right now.

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