Whole 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.
The 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."
The 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: