National Geographic News
A photo of ivory seized from art dealer Victor Gordon.

Items among the nearly one ton of ivory, valued at more than $800,000, that was seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Victor Gordon ivory trafficking investigation.


Bryan Christy

for National Geographic News

Published June 4, 2014

An African art dealer who prosecutors say was a key figure for elephant ivory smugglers operating in West and central Africa was sentenced Wednesday to 30 months in a U.S. prison by a federal judge in Brooklyn, New York.

Victor Gordon, of Philadelphia, had pleaded guilty in 2012 to violating the African Elephant Conservation Act in a case that grew out of a broader investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service into African-born ivory smugglers active in the U.S.

Poaching in West and central Africa is particularly widespread and violent, involving the killing of both park rangers and poachers. Sixty-five percent of the region's forest elephants have been slaughtered in the past decade.

Gordon, who paid $150,000 as part of his plea agreement, was involved in what federal judge Kiyo Matsumoto called one of the most egregious incidents in U.S. trafficking history.

Over the course of a decade, she said, Gordon had amassed one of the biggest collections U.S. law enforcement had ever seen. She called his smuggling an "extremely serious offense," noting that encouraging poaching puts rangers in jeopardy and funds criminal gangs operating in Africa.

Prosecutor Darren LaVerne underscored the need to provide a deterrent to traffickers and distinguished the Africans involved with Gordon as largely poor.

Gordon, by contrast, has an estimated net worth of $1.9 million, according to the government.

Despite the high value of their contraband, the techniques used by smugglers involved in the case were rather simple.

One technique was to conceal carved ivory in clay giving the investigation its code name: Operation Scratchoff.

Other smuggling techniques included painting ivory black to appear as ebony wood carvings and staining it brown using potassium permanganate to make it appear antique. Some smuggled ivory was hidden inside musical instruments.

The Quiet Face of Crime

Federal agents seized nearly one ton of ivory valued at more than $800,000 from Gordon's storefront and past customers, a quantity representing scores of dead elephants.

From a run-down storefront selling rough-hewn West African art on a typical Philadelphia street Gordon represents the quiet face of the blood ivory trade.

A man who's never been to Africa, he built his career buying wood and bronze African sculptures out of the back of Ford Econoline vans or the trunks of cars driven by West Africans on selling tours that typically included many large American cities, including New York and Dallas. His goal, he told prosecutors, was to create a museum.

Gordon purchased hundreds of ivory carvings during his career, including massive whole tusks.

One of his suppliers was a West African named Abutu Sherif, whom prosecutors say Gordon contracted to smuggle ivory from Gabon to Philadelphia between 2006 and 2009.

Gordon bought Sherif plane tickets to Gabon, described what he wanted carved, coached Sherif how to alter receipts and to dye the material to make it appear old, and told Sherif not to drive directly from JFK International Airport to Gordon's business.

All of Sherif's ivory came from Gabon, a country that is among the hardest hit in the current poaching crisis.

Today, Judge Matsumoto also imposed a fine on Gordon of $7,500. At least eight West Africans have been prosecuted so far as a result of Operation Scratchoff.

"Elephants are now on the brink of extinction due to poaching and ivory traffickers like Victor Gordon," said Edward Grace, Deputy Assistant Director for Law Enforcement. "This sentence demonstrates our resolve to shut down the U.S. market for elephant ivory and send U.S. traffickers to prison."

Follow Bryan Christy on Twitter.

Marcus Antonius
Marcus Antonius

The man should be executed when he leaves prison. That is my opinion !

Myrna Vazquez
Myrna Vazquez

Thirty months?! That's all???? For genocide???? AND causing (ordering) the killing of park rangers?????  And he gets to keep the money????!!!

Not only shame on Mr. Gordon, but shame on the courts.

LD Boynton
LD Boynton

30 years would be more appropriate in this case and a fine of $1.9 million wouldn't hurt either!!   SHAME SHAME ON YOU MR. GORDON

tao observer
tao observer

30 months - not nearly long enough for an egregious crime.  

$150 K is also not enough.  

10 years perhaps and massive restitution - at least $2 million so when he gets out there is no capital to fund future crimes.. 

"Gordon, by contrast, has an estimated net worth of $1.9 million, according to the government."

Ray Edwards
Ray Edwards

At least 5 years for this guy c'mon man!!!!!!!!!!!!

Daniel Stiles
Daniel Stiles

There are too few prosecutions of this kind. There are several big outlets and auction houses operating both online and bricks-and-morter in the U.S. that should be investigated. It is extremely difficult to get state and federal law enforcement to take action.

Jeff Hunt
Jeff Hunt

What a pitiful sentence and fine for a decade of crimes against nature and humanity.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

FINALLY!!! They need to do this a few hundred more times across the globe, Then they will finally have no more demand. Once there is no demand there will be no more poaching. Maybe now the elephants have a real chance to recover.

OWNING IVORY IS NOT GOOD! Let the ivory stay where it should be, On the front of an elephant.


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