Updated at 3:45 p.m. ET June 24
Roughly one ton of elephant ivory was crushed in front of a crowd of spectators in Times Square Friday. Organizers hope the crushing of tusks and tchotkes will deter people from buying ivory products and lead to the eventual shutdown of the illegal ivory trade.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hosted the event with a number of conservation groups. It followed the U.S. government’s crush of about six tons of ivory in Denver (here’s a video of it) in November 2013 and was part of a growing movement to destroy ivory stockpiles and raise public consciousness. In May, China destroyed nearly 1,500 pounds of seized ivory tusks and carvings in Beijing. Similar events have been held in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Gabon, Kenya, and Belgium, and elsewhere, totaling more than 50 tons of destroyed ivory.
The sale and purchase of ivory products drives an international network of crime that begins with poachers in Africa and ends in shops around the world. Since 1989, the population of African elephants has fallen by half, to about 500,000. More than 20,000 of the animals are killed each year, with poaching hotspots in Tanzania, Mozambique, and central Africa. (Learn more about ivory trafficking.)
“We must crush the trade in ivory,” said Dan Ashe, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The ivory destroyed in Times Square came in many shapes, including whole tusks, carved trinkets, jewelry, and home furnishings. The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies seized the items over the past few years from traffickers, including an art dealer in Philadelphia.
“With this crush we’re sending a clear message that ivory markets need to be closed,” says John Calvelli, the executive vice president for public affairs for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which is one of the groups co-hosting the event. (You can stream video of the crush Friday morning at 10:30).
The crush wasn't just meant to take ivory out of circulation, it was meant to send a message that governments should speed up additional efforts to fight the illegal markets behind the slaughter of elephants.
Times Square was chosen for the latest ivory crush because of its high visibility and because it receives visitors from all over the world, says Calvelli. And New York City was once home to the largest ivory market in the U.S., where people could buy all manner of products made from the material.
There has been a worldwide ban on importing new ivory since 1989. New York state passed a law banning the sale of all ivory products in 2014. New Jersey followed soon after, and now similar bills are being debated in California and Washington, D.C. President Obama has called for a national ban but it has yet to take shape.
A stricter ban is needed to combat trading in black market ivory that is passed off as legitimate, says Calvelli. In most states, and in many other countries, people can buy and sell “vintage” ivory. Trouble is, it’s hard to tell one piece of ivory from another, and unscrupulous sellers can make a new tusk appear old by dipping it in coffee or burying it for a few weeks.
A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that up to 90 percent of the ivory for sale in Los Angeles could actually be traced back to illegal sources.
“When the buying [of ivory] stops, the killing will stop,” said Judith Garber, an acting assistant secretary of State who will soon convene world leaders to talk about wildlife trafficking, and who was on hand to observe the crush.
“We want elephants to roam free and wild, with their ivory on their faces, where it should belong,” said actor Kristin Davis, who is attending the crush to lend support to wildlife conservation.
But organizers want to spur action outside of the United States, too. China also allows the trade of pre-existing ivory, and the country is the largest market for illegal wildlife products, dwarfing the second-largest market—the United States. And China has a thriving black market.
Earlier in June, China delighted conservationists by announcing its intent to shut down its legal ivory sales and processing industry, which produces much of the world’s carvings. Details, including a timeline, have yet to emerge on China’s plan. But Calvelli calls it “the most heartening news we've heard in a long time,” and says the U.S. should follow suit and ban existing ivory sales.
“If people want to save elephants they should not buy ivory,” he says, adding that the crush in Times Square is a good first step.
And that first step means a ton of ivory was crushed into tiny fragments with a 50,000-pound rock crusher Friday morning. What will happen to the fragments is unclear, although the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering proposals for memorials made of the stuff.
Speaking against ivory carving, National Geographic explorer and artist Asher Jay said, “The only act of creation that should occur with ivory is when an elephant is born.”