This Thursday, the United States government will destroy nearly six tons of ivory, which represents a good portion of the ivory the U.S. has seized since the late 1980s, when a national ban on commercial African ivory imports went into effect.
It will be a symbolic act. But symbolism matters.
Ivory destruction ceremonies have been a litmus test for where a country stands on the ivory trade ever since Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi torched 13 tons of ivory in 1989, setting the stage for a vote to ban international trade in ivory by parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
That ban went into effect in 1990. Six months later, the U.S. ivory market collapsed.
With no international market, it might have been reasonable for all CITES parties to destroy their ivory stocks after the 1990 international ivory ban took effect.
But the ban did not last. In 1999 and again in 2008 parties to CITES voted to allow ivory sales.
The first sale was of 55 tons to Japan and the second, of 115 tons to Japan and China. In the wake of the China sale, elephant poaching and ivory trafficking have boomed. So has the need for international action. (See related article: “Ivory Worship.”)
Each was an act by a relatively poor country sacrificing a potential asset for principles that go beyond money. "The Philippines will not be a party to this massacre, and we refuse to be a conduit to this cycle of killing," Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Ramon Paje said last summer, when his country crushed its ivory.
But not all ivory destructions are alike.
One of the most amazing things about the African elephant is its ability, despite its immense size, to blend in with its surroundings. Just meters away, even seasoned scouts can overlook an elephant.
So, too, does the language surrounding the elephant’s protection easily conceal the size and nature of the ivory trafficking problem.
The United States banned the import and export of African ivory in 1989 but it did not ban its domestic sale. So ivory continues to be openly available for sale in luxury shops just off Madison Avenue in New York City, just as it is in San Francisco and other American cities. (See pictures of the ivory trade around the world.)
As recently demonstrated by criminal cases in New York and Philadelphia, America's legal ivory market has offered an incentive for ivory smugglers.
In 2012, New York state announced guilty pleas by two ivory dealers. In 2011, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) agents raided the African art store of Philadelphia African art dealer Victor Gordon, seizing an estimated ton of ivory from his facilities and his customers. (According to USFWS officials, Gordon's ivory is considered evidence and is not part of the ivory to be destroyed this week.)
But it would be a mistake to think ivory trafficking to the United States compares in any meaningful way to ivory smuggling to China.
U.S. Customs and USFWS inspectors are among the most respected border patrollers in the world and have only interdicted a total of six or so tons of ivory since 1989.
It's not been surprising to find that amount of ivory in a single illegal shipment or two bound for China. In 2011 alone, 46.5 tons of illegal ivory were seized, much of it headed for China.
In choosing to destroy its national ivory stock a quarter century ago, Kenya took a big risk. Its ivory burn put that country in conflict with its southern neighbors who wanted to expand the ivory trade, and it cost Kenya a lot of potential revenue.
But Kenya made a calculation that tourism for live elephants was more valuable than trinkets from dead ones. In destroying its ivory stocks this week, the United States has much less at stake than Kenya did in 1989, or even than Gabon or the Philippines did more recently.
"We hope this is only the beginning and as a next step the U.S. bans its domestic ivory trade," said Paula Kahumbu, director of Kenya-based Wildlife Direct. "Every single thing that demonstrates individual or national responsibility is a step in the right direction."
When it comes to today's ivory trade, one important resource the United States has that other countries don't is its economic relationship with China. Unlike the U.S., China's government seeks to expand its domestic ivory trade and to import more ivory from Africa.
Law enforcement in Asia and Africa is inadequate to stop ivory trafficking syndicates. So calling upon China and other countries to ban the domestic sale of ivory and to join the U.S. would be an even more meaningful expenditure of American political capital.