NEW YORK — Some 1,500 people gathered in New York City's Times Square today (June 19) to witness the destruction of 1 ton of confiscated ivory — a move intended to demonstrate to the world that objects made from poached ivory have no value.
Some wore it, some carried it, but the message was clear: "Take a stand." Tables overflowed with carved tusks, delicate sculpted butterflies, and intricate Buddhist figures, offering people one last glimpse of what was soon to be pulverized. Supporters stood behind the ivory pieces, some waiting for more than two hours to watch the ivory be destroyed. “I came here as fast as I could,” Jennifer Sanchez, 22, said, as she held a small white poster with an elephant she had drawn. She said she wanted to help the animals stay safe from human greed.
The crushing machine, which resembled a trash-collecting truck with a conveyer belt on one end and a nozzle at the other, silently waited to do its job. Items were eventually loaded one-by-one onto the belt, and the trinkets were pulverized, with tiny dime-size pieces and powdered ivory spilling into an enormous collection bin. [See photos from the ivory crush event in Times Square]
"Today's ivory crush will send a very clear message to the world: that we're not only crushing ivory; we're crushing the bloody ivory market," U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell told the crowd of activists, government officials and concerned citizens.
From 2011 to 2014, the number of African elephants poached for their ivory tusks reached its highest level ever recorded, Jewell said. "In just a three-year span, an estimated 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory. That's an average of 34,000 elephants per year killed in Africa,” she added.
Although the United States is one of the top recipients of smuggled ivory (second behind China), the country is also critical to stopping it, said Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We're here because the United States is intimately connected to this slaughter," Ashe said at the event.
Some of the ivory that was crushed today came from a 2009 raid on a Philadelphia art store. The owner was sentenced last summer to 30 months in prison for smuggling the illegal ivory. It was "one of the stiffest sentences ever levied for a wildlife crime," Ashe said.
However, current loopholes in the regulatory and enforcement system often make it easy to buy and sell ivory under the radar, said Jeff Flocken, regional director for North America at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Because of the holes in regulation, "it's often compared to Swiss cheese," he told Live Science.
Many private companies, such as online retailers eBay and Etsy, have committed to stop most, if not all, ivory sales on their sites, Flocken said. But he also said that certain items, like 100-year-old pianos with ivory keys, are often exempt from ivory trade regulations.
Jan Vertefeuille, senior director of advocacy at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said ivory that has been carved into artifacts in museums is also exempt from the possibility of being crushed. She told Live Science that the primary goal of destroying the trinkets is to stop demand for ivory products.
"We need to change the hearts and minds of consumers," Vertefeuille said. She has been working with people in Thailand for the past three years to eradicate demand for ivory. Some people who love elephants think they're honoring the animals by buying ivory, Vertefeuille said. Many don't realize that the ivory they have in their homes came at the cost of an elephant's life, she added.
Grace Gabriel, IFAW regional director for Asia, faced a similar situation in China. She said that a 2007 IFAW survey found that 70 percent of the people in China surveyed did not know that elephants were sacrificed for ivory. Many people in China thought that ivory — which translates to xiang ya, or elephant teeth, in Chinese — was made from actual teeth. [Elephant Images: The Biggest Beasts on Land]
IFAW started a campaign in China to dispel the tooth-origin misconception. The organization created an advertisement that showed a baby elephant telling its mother that it just grew a tooth. Instead of reacting with delight, the mother looked stricken. Advertising agencies, working pro bono, were able to spread the message to about 75 percent of the Chinese urban population, Gabriel told Live Science. On a more recent survey, 83 percent of the Chinese residents surveyed said they wouldn't buy ivory, Gabriel said.
During an ivory crush event in Beijing in May, the Chinese government decreed it would ban the sale of ivory, though officials did not give a specific timeline for its enactment. Gabriel said the U.S. needs to do the same.
More than elephant conservation
At today's event, government officials and representatives from nonprofit organizations said the public display is a statement to protect not only elephants, but also national security.
"Some people say, 'Congressman, with all that's going on in the world, with violence in churches and the workplace, with wages that aren't keeping up with people's needs, with ISIS and ISIL, and terrorism, why do you care about saving elephants?'” said Rep. Steve Israel of New York. "It's not just the right thing to do, not just the moral thing to do — it is the smart thing for us to do.”
He said the ivory trade often funds terrorist and criminal organizations, likely bringing in $8 billion to $19 billion so far. [I]t goes to Boko Haram, it goes to the Lord's Resistance Army, it goes to Al-Shabaab," he said, adding that protecting elephants "is about the safety of the American people."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has teamed up with organizations like the WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society, as well as government agencies like the Department of the Interior, the Department of Justice and Customs and Border Protection, in an effort to halt the sale of illegal ivory.
Ashe also mentioned that the U.S. is working with countries like Peru, Tanzania, China and Botswana, to "take the fight to the traffickers."
Today's event was designed to raise awareness about the ivory trade, but Jewel also noted that poaching is not limited to elephants. "Just earlier this week, we learned that the northern white rhino is heading straight for extinction. There is one male left in the world, and he is beyond breeding age. So they will be gone," she said.
"If we want our grandchildren and their children to grow up in a world where they can see elephants in the wild, and other species, we owe it to them to shut down the market," Jewell said.