National Geographic Daily News

Bryan Christy

for National Geographic

Published November 15, 2013

Yesterday the United States government destroyed six tons of ivory, nearly all of the ivory in its possession.

It was a ceremony covered by media from around the world, including China CCTV television, Al Jazeera, HBO's VICE, CBS, and Reuters. The International Fund for Animal Welfare and the World Wildlife Fund co-hosted the event with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In contrast to the Philippines, which in June used hacksaws, a small roller, and a backhoe to break up its ivory stock before sending it to be incinerated in a crematorium used for stray animals, the U.S. brought in a massive rock crusher capable of pulverizing 150 to 200 tons of material an hour.

A bulldozer picked up almost a quarter century's worth of seized ivory carvings and raw tusks and delivered these remnants of elephants into the crusher's maw. Moments later out poured what looked like bits and pieces of seashells you'd find walking along a sandy beach after a storm. The material will go to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which will design memorials for distribution to its facilities around the country.

Photo of Ivory figures the US Fish and Wildlife service, at the direction of President Obama, crushed on November 14.
Photograph by Joe Amon, The Denver Post/Getty Images
Ivory figures that the US Fish and Wildlife Service, at the direction of President Obama, crushed on November 14.

It is hard not to become jaded by the elephant poaching crisis. I spent three years investigating and writing about the illegal ivory trade. Elephants I watched from a Land Rover in East Africa just two years ago are now most certainly dead. Everyone knows why. Africa lacks sufficient security in the bush to protect elephants. Criminal syndicates smuggle ivory by the ton, but their kingpins have remained invisible for decades. Corruption is rife in the field, at the ports, and in governments from Africa to Asia, where most illegal ivory ends up.

More of the Same?

Recently, several of the world's largest conservation NGOs teamed up to launch a campaign as part of the Clinton Global Initiative. The campaign's slogan—"Stop the Killing, Stop the Trafficking, Stop the Demand"—is so patently obvious that I find it insulting.

Supply, shipment, and consumption are the cornerstones of every form of international trade. To present them as a fresh perspective on an old problem is to trigger my worst fears as a criminal investigator: Nothing will change.

Why? Because the same conservation establishment that has presided over the state of affairs we see today can come up with nothing more innovative to address the elephant poaching crisis than saying: We should stop it.

And so I went to the ivory crush without much real hope, and I did my job as a journalist.

"What does your machine normally do?" I asked the man on the rock crusher.

"It takes big rocks and turns them into smaller rocks," he said. And I wrote that down.

Promising Signs

But then I began to hear things I hadn't heard before. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Judy Garber announced a one-million-dollar bounty on the head of Laotian wildlife trafficker Vixay Keosavang and his syndicate under the State Department's Transnational Organized Crime Rewards Program. Here was a real crime-fighting technique being applied to wildlife trafficking.

I listened as IFAW's Grace Gabriel told me a story of how China's new president's "Tiger and Fly" anti-corruption campaign has led to a drop in sales of luxury watches, expensive liquors, and other extravagant "gifts" commonly used to bribe officials. During my investigation in China, ivory retailers told me that government and military officials buying luxury gifts for superiors were customers for their best ivory.

I heard several people, including Ginette Hemley of the WWF, call for a ban on the domestic U.S. ivory market. It is illegal to bring ivory into the U.S., but it is legal to buy and sell ivory domestically. Legal domestic markets are a loophole that enables trade in many of the worst ivory trafficking problem countries, especially China.

And then, near the end of a day of speeches, I watched as actress Kristin Bauer van Straten reached into her pocket in the middle of her speech and pulled out an ivory bracelet her father, a World War II veteran, had brought home to her mother.

"This is a thing," she said, holding the bracelet. "This is not life." She added her family heirloom to the pyre of ivory to be destroyed.

Kenyan Paula Kahumbu ended the day by recounting her visit last week to Ivoryton, Connecticut, which, she said, once processed 100,000 African elephants a year into combs, piano keys, and billiard balls. Kahumbu said America's recognition of its role in the ivory trade was a lesson for China. She read a message from Kenyan First Lady Margaret Kenyatta, who congratulated the U.S. and asked the American government to join Kenya in enacting a ban on domestic ivory trade.

As I was leaving, people began discussing the possibility of a nationwide program for people to turn in legal ivory they have in their homes but don't want to keep in light of today's elephant slaughter.

This is something many Catholic priests have asked me since my story "Ivory Worship" was published in National Geographic magazine. "Do I have to get rid of my ivory?"

There are even smaller things people can do to help. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe pointed to a U.S. Postal Service truck offering "Save Vanishing Species" stamps for sale.

And so it was a day of more than crushing the teeth of dead elephants. It was a day of turning the big rock of wildlife crime into smaller rocks of human action.

27 comments
M. Chase
M. Chase

To Mulubrhan Gebrekidan:

I agree that recognition is a step toward solving the problem, but Obama has taken that in the wrong direction. Now that nearly all of the ivory in the U.S.'s possession is crushed into rubble, there will now be an even greater demand for the stuff. It's value has increased. That means that there will be more elephant killings than ever before. Not only that , but every last piece of ivory that has been destroyed is a symbol of how in vain conservation efforts have been. Do you realize the uses ivory items could have in the effort to stop elephant poaching? If they were put on display with statistics about how many elephant lives were taken to create them, would that not cause a surge of animal activists to come forth to do something?

Mulubrhan Gebrekidan
Mulubrhan Gebrekidan

Recognition of one's contribution to a problem is a step toward a change. I hope what happened in U.S not only to be an example for china, but also for many African nations.

izmel fawts
izmel fawts

The day everyone is happy with what is happening is the day we no longer exist. 

Claudius Clydesdale
Claudius Clydesdale

i think they could of auction the ivory and the benefits go to the fight against poachers.. or other charities.. not like there isn't poverty anywhere..

 the damage is already done..


Evan B.
Evan B.

i think that by destroying all of that ivory it will make its value go up and poachers will want to poach more elephants for their ivory which will make them profit even more out of the ivory industry

THANKS OBAMA!!!!!!

M. Chase
M. Chase

I believe that, as a form of protest against ivory trade, destroying ivory is not the answer. The poor elephants have already been shot down, so why does Obama insist we desecrate their remains by pounding ivory objects into gravel? Why not put the ivory objects on display with statistics about how many elephants were murdered to make those objects? If Obama's point of wrecking ivory objects is to protest the elephant ivory trade, then he ought to get people riled up for the protection of elephants by making them feel remorse and outrage over the issue. Ivory objects should be kept as symbols of the inhumane killings of elephants for their tusks.

Alex Zuniga
Alex Zuniga

Just another outrageous crime of greed - born of stupidity and ignorance, or simply put; for the love of money and total disregard for the love of life.

Karma Kraze
Karma Kraze

 There is a fine line between significant archeological findings ( that are  considered historical artifacts made from ivory, tusks, tooth, etc.)  and  "Contraband".... What is the process to determine which holds historic value? Did all of US historic ivory get crushed?

It seems like we choose to exploit any animal we can for profit and realize how wrong we are when the animal population starts to diminish. Why aren't we doing the same for animal fur, forest trees and fishing regulations.-Don't tell me we will burn houses down to prove a point to lumbers. The polar and panda bear should be first in line for help.The only thing "we showed the world" is that we can burn away money and historic artifacts and not really solve problems. I agree with Charles that we have only increased value, though in some ironic way, we did say that "the west no longer cares for ivory" 

The only reason why people poach ivory in 3rd worlds is an economic reason. It is a commodity there and the consumers are us. Perhaps poaching ends where consumer demand begins. Though it can also be said that poaching will stop when poverty and other issues in those countries are being resolved. There will always be those bad apples who smuggle and their consequences for those crimes should stand out far above others. Perhaps 5 years minimum.

charles potts
charles potts

A publicity show which will temporarily get some attention, and will eventually fade from memory.  It seems that by destroying this ivory, the commodity only becomes more rare, thus more precious, in demand and valuable.  What about flooding the market with this contraband instead?  Mix in some synthethetic knock-offs so that the customer questions the source. Or have the gov't sell the material at reduced rates so that the value comes down and it's no longer profitable for th poachers. The only way to successfully fight this is by economic counter-measures. 

D. Russell
D. Russell

Impressed with the publicity stunt but cannot relate how this destruction will prevent the same from happening again.  The people who were unsuccessful this time in getting their ivory smuggled into these countries will no doubt try again.  Again, the countries that are against the poaching of animal species are putting their attention into after-the-fact poaching instead of assisting the governments of countries who do not have the means to employ sufficient personnel to be "Rangers" over their lands.  This is an example of re-education of the local poachers and enforcement of international laws not the publicity stunt as was completed.  The answers to addressing the root cause is not the problem but the implementation of the corrective measures to mitigate the slaughter of these animals takes continuous enforcement and that takes committment and  money by forgign countries.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

I thought it has been recently recognised that the official international campaign against the ivory trade has actually made the poaching situation worse! There are more elephants and rhinos being poached today, and more museums being raided, due to the increased scarcity and price of ivory which has resulted from the bans. That has served to make poaching even more lucrative for the poachers and all those officials and politicians along the line who take bribes to look the other way. 

Dana Coleman
Dana Coleman

How stupid do you have to be to think that destroying the ivory from elephants that are ALREADY DEAD will prevent the death of more elephants?
It would have made a lot more sense to dump this ivory on the market and depress the value.

Ralph Gaze
Ralph Gaze

Ivory has been replaced in a number of non-art applications such as billiard balls and piano keys by plastics, starting with Bakelite (invented in 1907).   I wonder what it would cost to develop a plastic more closely resembling the texture and appearance of natural ivory, and sufficiently inexpensive to undercut the natural ivory market?  The development costs would probably never be recouped by sales, so the funding would have to be of a philanthropic sort. 

Eric Paul
Eric Paul

The only way to solve this problem is for the US government, and other countries with a moral compass, to start throwing their weight around and FORCE these countries to take action.  And part of that formula is to make sure punishment is SEVERE and not just a slap on the wrist for anyone involved in the illegal ivory trade.

fred raben
fred raben

That is just cutting off your nose to spite your face. Totally stupid

kuang yiguang
kuang yiguang

China must stop the trade .

If not ,we ,Chinese will be real murder of the elephants.

We will have no face to face the world.

Cynthia Carlson
Cynthia Carlson

It was and is the right thing to do. We must stop the extinction of elephants.

Dusty Rockets
Dusty Rockets

@M. Chase   You took the words right out of my mouth. Now that the artwork (no matter how inhumane) has been destroyed, those elephants died for nothing.  We should stop the problem at it's root, not destroy the product.


Just like diamonds; Even if we destroyed all the blood diamonds, that doesn't affect the mining process. If anything, it would only make them MORE rare, and MORE desirable, exacerbating the issue.

Bianka Gonzalez
Bianka Gonzalez

@M. Chase  I completely agree with you; such a thing would open the eyes of the public and stimulate thought of how to prevent this from happening to other endangered animals.

Ethan Xander
Ethan Xander

@charles potts I agree. The first thought that I had when I read this article was, "Gee, now my uncle's ivory carvings are probably worth a whole lot more."

Six TONS of ivory dumped on the market would have done more to depress its value and help stop the poaching than its destruction in this manner.

B C.
B C.

@Andrew Booth In the late 1980s the international campaign against the ivory trade is what saved the species from extinction.  In the past few decades, exceptions were allowed in the ban to sell ivory to Japan and China.  Rather than flood those markets and drive out traders, the opposite happened, esp. in China.   

China's government expanded capacity, controlled supply, hiked the legal price, and made its market even more enticing to smugglers. 

The international campaigns haven't made poaching "worse", traffickers have done that, but campaigns have been poorly designed and implemented.  The world needs new and better methods to address this international crime.  Scarcity in a time of growing demand does indeed generally drive up a price, but legalized trade led to expanded capacity in China, including construction of the world's largest ivory carving factory.  China's capacity, legal and illegal, will outpace the elephant's ability to reproduce.  In 1989, the West banned trade, shut down its traditional ivory industries, and the public turned away from ivory as a desirable.  Those are key elements to solving the problem again.  --Bryan Christy

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

@Ralph Gaze You could say the same about gold or precious stones. There are huge quantities of imitation diamonds, rubies or emeralds around which only experts can identify. However, people don't want fake or imitation jewels - they want the REAL thing. The same with ivory.

Dana Coleman
Dana Coleman

@Ralph Gaze Doesn't work. The value of a thing is at least partially dependent upon its scarcity. Fake plastic ivory does not devalue real ivory.

Ethan Xander
Ethan Xander

@Cynthia Carlson I agree that we must do everything we can to help stop the murder (let alone extinction) of elephants! I just think this action was very misguided and counterproductive.

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