Historic U.S. Ivory Crush a Call to Global Action

Six tons of seized ivory destroyed in effort to fight global wildlife crime.

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.

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.