COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Waves of acrid white dust drifted into a throng of photographers and reporters as U.S. officials used a massive rock-crushing machine to pulverize about six tons of raw tusks, carvings and trinkets, the country's stockpile of seized illegal elephant ivory.
Designed as a grand gesture against rampant elephant poaching in Africa and a message for consumers around the world, the crush was also an opportunity for United States officials to tell the world that the U.S. is prepared to address its shortcomings in dealing with the illegal ivory trade and to take a leading role in halting it.
“We’re here, in the shadows of past failures, to say ‘enough’,” said Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Wildlife conservationists estimate that more than 30,000 elephants are illegally killed each year to satisfy the rising demand for ivory in Asia, particularly in China. But on Thursday, U.S. officials pointed to their own country's role in the poaching crisis as a leading market for wildlife goods, including ivory.
It's the latest step in a turnaround that began in July, when President Obama signed an executive order mandating the formation of a high-level Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, which includes senior representatives of the Departments of State, Justice and Defense.
Members of the task force were present Thursday at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, where the crush took place, to emphasize that organized crime networks and terror groups like Al Shabab are profiting from elephant poaching.
Environmental concerns — it's feared that some countries could lose their entire elephant populations within a decade — are now counter-balanced with worries over terrorism.
The problem is “no longer in a green ghetto,” said Allan Crawford, a crime expert at the World Wildlife Fund. “This is a national security issue.”
A serious challenge
A portion of the six tons of ivory that was crushed this week by U.S. officials hoping to send a message.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
But controlling the domestic ivory trade is a serious challenge despite the strengthening resolve of the government to take on the crisis, said officials.
Trading ivory within the U.S. is legal in certain circumstances, but the laws governing it are confusing and limited in scope. Enforcement personnel are overstretched, the USFWS budget has been cut back in recent years and even experts struggle to discern legal from illegal ivory.
“It’s a real problem,” said David Hayes, a former Deputy Interior Secretary deeply involved in the issue.
The possession of and trade in elephant ivory is governed by a number of international agreements and federal laws, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the federal Endangered Species Act, the African Elephant Conservation Act and the Asian Elephant Conservation Act. Some states place their own, additional restrictions on the sale of ivory.
The U.S. placed a moratorium on the import of most African elephant ivory in 1989. Ivory imported before that date can generally be legally sold, and is known as ‘pre-ban’ ivory. However, there’s no requirement to register or mark ivory pieces that were imported prior to 1989, and there’s no simple way of telling pre-ban and more recently imported ivory apart.
Smugglers who bring in new ivory often discolor it to make it look old and thus legitimately saleable.
“There is, practically-speaking, no way to police this,” said Hayes, “it’s obviously confusing to consumers."
The USFWS has only about 210 investigators nationwide, said Steve Oberholtzer, a USFWS special agent in charge of the Mountain-Prairie Region. Since it was so difficult and time-consuming to identify illegal ivory in private possession within the country, their focus has been on interdicting illegal ivory shipments as they cross the border at major points of entry.
One exception to the 1989 import moratorium is sport-hunted, unworked tusks and trophies that are brought into the U.S. with a CITES import permit. (A few African countries allow regulated sport hunting of elephants.) Hunters who bring trophies in to the country in this way are not allowed to sell them, but there are too few agents to tightly enforce this prohibition, said one law enforcement officer who did not want to be named. About 400 elephant trophies, representing about 800 tusks, were legally imported in 2012 according to the USFWS, which records the numbers of trophies but not the weight of each.
Some conservationists fear that this lack of control and thin recordkeeping means that ivory from trophy hunted elephants may be making its way into the black market. It is legal to rework or cut up pre-ban ivory, and many pieces that are custom-carved in the U.S. supposedly from old, pre-ban ivory may in fact be made of new, illegal ivory.
U.S. officials point out, however, that the loss of 400 elephants per year does not present a meaningful threat to the remaining elephant populations, and pales in comparison to the number killed by poachers.
“Sport hunting is not the problem,” said USFWS Director Ashe.
Robert Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural resources, a member of the Wildlife Trafficking Task Force, acknowledged that U.S. laws governing the wildlife trade “were not as complete as they could be.” Prosecutors can’t seek to confiscate the proceeds of wildlife crime, he said, and had difficulty using federal money laundering statutes against wildlife criminals. They often have to fall back on the antiquated Lacey Act of 1900, which allows authorities to prosecute hunters who have killed an animal in violation of other countries’ laws.
The legal framework is “a bit of a pastiche,” he said, adding that the task force was urgently formulating recommendations to Congress to improve wildlife crime laws.
Given the likelihood that domestic legal trade may be being used as a cover for illegal trade, several nonprofits including the Wildlife Conservation Society, the World Wildlife Fund and the International Fund For Animal Welfare are actively floating the idea of a moratorium on all ivory sales within the U.S. for a period of ten to fifteen years, or until the African elephant poaching crisis abates.
Although much of the talk at the ‘ivory crush’ was framed in terms of policy, regulation and economics, for some the crush was an opportunity to make a moral statement. Actor Kristin Bauer van Straten, known for her role in the series True Blood, put two family heirlooms in the crusher, an ivory bracelet and a small statuette, brought back from Japan after World War II by her grandfather.
“It was extremely emotional for me,” she said, “but they’re just things. It was a different time then — it [ivory] represents something different today.”