US crushes 6-ton 'blood ivory' stockpile

Fish and Wildlife Service destroy ivory seized from illegal smugglers to send a message about wildlife trafficking

More than 6 tons of ivory held at the National Wildlife Property Repository is being destroyed. The items, including those shown here, were seized from smugglers, traders and tourists at U.S. ports of entry.
Ed Andrieski/AP

U.S. officials destroyed more than 6 tons of confiscated ivory tusks, carvings and jewelry — the bulk of the U.S. "blood ivory" stockpile — to support the fight against a $10 billion global trade that slaughters tens of thousands of elephants each year.

Officials on Thursday used rock crushers to pulverize the stockpile, accumulated over the past 25 years, at the National Wildlife Property Repository north of Denver. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will donate the crushed ivory particles to a museum to be determined, for future display.

Service officials showed off thousands of ivory tusks, statues, ceremonial bowls, masks and ornaments to be destroyed — a collection that they said represented the killing of more than 2,000 adult elephants.

The items were seized from smugglers, traders and tourists at U.S. ports of entry after a global ban on the ivory trade went into effect in 1989.

"What is striking to me is the lengths that some commercial importers and smugglers will go to conceal their ivory — everything from staining it with colors to covering it with leather," said Fish and Wildlife Special Agent Steve Oberholtzer. "The stakes are high in the ivory trade."

The government has not estimated the value of the ivory being destroyed. However, 1 ton of ivory has been valued at $2 million in recent years when smugglers have been caught, so the total value of the U.S. stockpile could be about $12 million.

The message from Thursday's crush will likely reach consumers more than the faraway poachers and smugglers targeted by governments across the globe. Elephant poaching is at an all-time high, thanks in large part to U.S. demand and growing demand in Asia.

The British-based Born Free Foundation estimates that poachers killed 32,000 elephants last year. It says that black-market ivory sells for around $1,300 per pound.

Most elephants are killed in Africa, where there are about 300,000 African elephants left. There are an estimated 50,000 Asian elephants found from India to Vietnam.

Not everyone supports the ivory crush.

Bob Weisblut, a co-founder of the Florida-based International Ivory Society, said he thought the carvings and tusks should be sold to raise money for anti-poaching efforts.

"A lot of this is beautiful art," he said. "And it's a shame to destroy it."

Executive order

President Barack Obama issued an executive order in July asking U.S. agencies including the departments of Treasury, Defense and Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Council to work together to tackle the issue.

And former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made illegal wildlife trafficking a priority during her tenure as the top U.S. diplomat, gave the matter a high profile by speaking at a White House forum on wildlife trafficking in September, along with her daughter, Chelsea, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation.

One facet of the fight against illegal trafficking is to work with private industry to give law enforcement an edge over well-financed poachers and those who pay them, said Carter Roberts, president of the conservation group the World Wildlife Fund.

"We are being outgunned right now by these criminal syndicates," Roberts said at the White House forum. "They have night vision goggles, they have helicopters, they have lots of sophisticated arms. One of the keys tools at our disposal is going to be technology and inventing new ways to catch the bad guys before it's too late."

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