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See Inside Scientific American Volume 310, Issue 2

Feds Crush 6 Tons of Ivory to Save Elephants

Why the U.S. destroyed a multimillion-dollar stockpile of illegal ivory


On a clear November day outside Denver, dust filled the air as an industrial rock crusher pulverized nearly six tons of confiscated elephant ivory. Loader trucks dumped batch after batch of whole tusks, carved figurines, bracelets and other baubles into the giant blue crusher, which spat out a stream of fragments that looked like bits of seashell.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service destroyed the 25-year stash of ivory seizures—worth perhaps $12 million on the black market—to signal to the world that the U.S. will not tolerate elephant poaching or wildlife crime in general. Even though international commercial trade in ivory has been outlawed since 1989, poachers continue to kill African elephants for their tusks—one every 15 minutes. At that rate, the animals could be extinct in the wild within decades.

Authorities are concerned not just with the volume of the ivory trade but with whom is doing the killing. Today's poaching crisis is the work of transnational criminal syndicates that traffic in wildlife just as they traffic in humans, drugs and arms. Profits from the illegal sale of ivory, rhinoceros horn and other wildlife products—a $19-billion-a-year industry—are now known to fund terrorist and other extremist groups. The countries that harbor wild elephants rarely have the resources to counter such foes.

Whether the destruction of ivory stockpiles will actually help stamp out the trade is a matter of some debate. Critics contend that by reducing the ivory supply, such actions may drive up the price and thus stimulate even more poaching.

Yet past attempts to do the opposite by flooding the market with ivory have backfired and driven more poaching, says Peter Knights of WildAid, a nongovernmental organization based in San Francisco. “I think we have to look at history, and we have to learn this lesson,” Knights asserts, likening criminal wildlife trafficking to the drug trade. “We don't put heroin back on the market when we seize it”.

Travel expenses to attend the ivory crush were paid in part by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the World Wildlife Fund.

This article was originally published with the title "Tusk to Dust."

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