The ivory crush: Trumpeting in a new stage in crime fighting and conservation

By Aliza Kempner
African elephant tusks | WikiCommons

Last month, the deafening crunch of nearly six tons of ivory trumpeted in a new era for international crime fighting and conservation. The United States had seized the massive haul of ivory, illegally harvested from endangered African and Asian elephants, over several years. U.S. agents had seized the ivory from airports and cargo ships, often discovering ivory hidden in the false bottoms of suitcases and shipping crates or disguised by dark brown stain to disguise its young age.

Pursuant to an executive order from President Barack Obama, the “ivory tower” of carvings and trinkets met its demise in massive rock crushers on a sunny Colorado morning – a fate far removed from the gilded displays that many of these pieces had occupied previously. By destroying the ivory, the Obama administration hopes to send the message that the fruits of illegal poaching will not ripen in America, which had previously offered one of the world’s largest illegal ivory markets.

Ivory has long held a place in both Eastern and Western societies as a luxury good, used to fashion items like combs, piano keys, jewelry, and religious figurines. While bringing ivory into the United States is illegal, a complex loophole allows some ivory to sneak into the domestic market legally.  Meanwhile, demand is up in countries such as China due to a rapidly expanding upper class that sees ivory as a symbol of social status.

The establishment of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals, managed to curb the African elephant slaughter of the 1980s. Still, African elephants have returned to the brink of extinction as the blood ivory trade picks up speed once again. Recently, poachers have expanded their activities with renewed vigor, employing more sophisticated and lethal techniques to massacre the giant creatures. This has ranged from attacks using night-vision goggles and AK-47s to cyanide poisoning. The year 2011 witnessed an estimated 34.7 tons of illegal ivory seized around the world, and using an Interpol rule of thumb that says seized contraband equals 10 percent of actual smuggling, that weight translates to 31,500 dead elephants.

But the problem doesn’t stop at a simple blow to Babar’s reign and the consciences of tree-huggers everywhere. A report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence this past September shed light on the connection between the black market ivory trade and the market for illegal drugs and weapons. A lethal combination of sophisticated networks and the complicity of public officials has allowed traffickers to move ivory from remote areas of Africa to markets and ports. Consequently, this feeds the cycle of border insecurity and corruption in eastern, central, and southern African states. The smuggled ivory then makes its way to the Asian markets, among others, where a September report from The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) estimates that ivory trade has led to an additional $30 million in illicit revenue. Perhaps most disturbingly, these major opportunities for profit have also turned ivory into an important source of financing for terrorist networks such as the al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab in countries like Somalia.

However, progress is being made to curb demand, and the United States isn’t the only country seizing and destroying ivory. Other countries, including the Philippines (which had to get creative with its destruction), have made similar moves to put a halt to the carnage. Meanwhile, Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network that has played a key role in CITES elephant monitoring, has reported signs of lowered demand for ivory in countries like Cambodia and Singapore, which might leave further room for optimism.