ROCKY MOUNTAIN ARSENAL NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, COLO.--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.

Loader truck carts confiscated ivory to a rock crusher for destruction. Image: Kate Wong

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.”

FWS director Daniel Ashe said that another problem with putting more ivory into the legal supply chain is that it would create a smokescreen for illicit trade in ivory, making law enforcement and effective prosecution of criminals more difficult.

Destroying ivory stockpiles also makes practical sense, according to Crawford Allan of the World Wildlife Fund and TRAFFIC. In countries that lack the finances to secure their stocks of ivory effectively, he said, corrupt officials are selling it out of the backdoor of the storeroom and into the illegal trade. “If you haven’t got the money to protect it…the best thing to do is put it out of harm’s way, put it out of temptation, destroy it—simple as that,” Allan asserted.

Ashe argued that the ivory trade must be addressed as a moral and ethical issue. “The key to ethics is social [disapproval] for behaviors that are contrary to standard custom. What we need to do is establish a standard custom which is that ivory belongs to living elephants in the wild and we should have social [disapproval] for the possession and commercial trade in ivory.”

According to Grace Ge Gabriel of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, destroying confiscated wildlife to fight illicit trade has worked before with another species, the Tibetan antelope, also known as the chiru. Long prized for its fine fur, which is used to make so-called shahtoosh wool shawls that sell for thousands of dollars apiece, the antelope was being poached by the tens of thousands to supply the western shahtoosh market, she explained. So 10 years ago the Chinese government torched a bunch of Tibetan antelope pelts. “In that torching China sent a signal and asked the international community to support them in shutting down the trade and everybody did--from the increase in anti-poaching efforts in China to the shifting of the entire shahtoosh weaving industry in Kashmir to weaving an alternative wool to the fashion industry in the west shutting down the trade,” Gabriel recalled. In addition, the U.S. made the Tibetan antelope a protected species under in the Endangered Species Act. “I hope the crushing of the ivory today will send that message and [bring] the same success for elephants,” she said.

Yet even with all that support for ending the shahtoosh trade, poaching continues to threaten the Tibetan antelope. This past January officials in Nepal seized a more than 2,500-pound cache of shahtoosh wool worth millions of dollars. Some 11,500 animals were killed for that wool. The entire Tibetan antelope population is only an estimated 150,000 individuals strong.

Shutting down the ivory trade will be all the more difficult because of the involvement of highly organized criminal syndicates on the supply side that are running their poaching rackets like military operations, complete with machine guns, night-vision goggles, helicopters and an endless supply of people willing to take on the risks of poaching. Those countries that harbor wild elephants in most cases do not have the resources to effectively protect the animals from such well equipped and numerous enemy forces. By way of example, Jimmiel Mandima of the African Wildlife Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO, said that Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe has 200 rangers to protect the wildlife in an area the size of Switzerland; it needs 700. In May poachers poisoned watering holes and salt licks in the park with cyanide, killing perhaps more than 300 elephants, as well as lions, hyenas and wild dogs, among other species.

The root of the problem is soaring demand for ivory in China, which has by far the largest market for the product. Once a luxury few could afford, ivory is now within the financial grasp of the masses, thanks to the explosive growth of the country’s middle class. A recent National Geographic survey of 600 middle and upper middle class Chinese found that 84 percent of respondents planned to buy ivory in the future.

Making matters worse, countries that consume ivory have shown reluctance to acknowledge their role in fueling Africa’s elephant poaching crisis. International commercial trade in ivory has been banned since 1989, with the exception of some one-off sales, but experts say that legal domestic ivory markets in places like China and Thailand allow for the laundering of illegal ivory from Africa. Yet China has denied that its legal ivory market contributes to poaching, as has Thailand. At the opening of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species in March, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said Thailand would amend its national legislation “with the goal of putting an end on ivory trade and to be in line with international norms.” But she did not provide any further details, prompting concern that she was not referring to shutting down the country’s domestic ivory trade, which is what conservationists have been pushing for.

As the second largest ivory market (albeit a distant second behind China), the U.S. is part of the problem, too. Although the import and export of African ivory for commercial purposes is generally not allowed here, our system is riddled with legal loopholes that criminals can exploit. For instance, the U.S. allows the import of raw tusks from sport-hunted elephants, but does not restrict the number of tusks a hunter can bring in. It also allows the trade of antique ivory, despite the fact that on a practical level it is impossible to distinguish old ivory from new. In the December issue of Scientific American the editors argue that the U.S. should ban the trade of all ivory, among other measures this country should take to help fight illegal wildlife trafficking.

Meanwhile the African elephants are dying--one every 15 minutes. At that rate they could be extinct in the wild in a matter of decades.

During his remarks ahead of the crush, FWS's Ashe stood at a podium next to a display of ivory trinkets and compared the plight of the elephant to that of the American bison. The bison was once hunted to near extinction for its hide and meat but now roams the plains here in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge and elsewhere thanks to intensive conservation efforts. “In the span of a few short decades, the Great Plains bison herd—a population estimated at one time to be between 30 and 60 million animals—was reduced to fewer than 700,” he said. “I’m haunted by that example when I think of African elephants and what can happen when greed and indifference take hold in the world. And so we’re here in the shadow of past failures to say, ‘Enough.’”


Full disclosure: my travel expenses for attending the crush were paid in part by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the World Wildlife Fund.