‘Blood ivory’ destruction in Times Square signals renewed efforts to curb poaching

Over 900kg of illegal ivory was crushed in New York's Times Square. Photo credit: Kate Miyamoto/USFWS

Over 900kg of illegal ivory was crushed in New York’s Times Square. Photo credit: Kate Miyamoto/USFWS

Over 900kg of illegally poached ‘blood ivory’ was destroyed in front of crowds in New York’s Time Square on Friday. The display, which was coordinated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the New York state department of environmental conservation and a coalition of wildlife conservation groups, marked a serious crackdown on the illegal trade.

“We are not just crushing illegally poached ivory but we are crushing the bloody ivory market,” said Cristián Samper, chief executive of the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the groups in the coalition. “We are crushing any hopes by the poachers that they will profit by killing off our Earth’s majestic elephants.”

The elephant poaching trade has reached its highest point in decades, and over 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory between 2011 and 2014. The rate of slaughter surpasses the rate at which the species can reproduce, according to the USFWS, and there could be as little as five years remaining before elephants become doomed to extinction in the wild.

US interior secretary Sally Jewell commented: “If we want our grandchildren to grow up in a world where they can see elephants in the wild, we owe it to them to shut down the market that fuels poachers, and to bring shame to people around the world who buy these products.”

The last ivory crush in the US took place in Denver in 2013. Photo credit: Gavin Shire/USFWS

The last ivory crush in the US took place in Denver in 2013. Photo credit: Gavin Shire/USFWS

The USA is the second-largest market for ivory, behind China, and permits the trade of ivory acquired before the enforcement of a global ban in 1989. President Barack Obama attempted to ban all sales of ivory in 2014, but it has not yet been outlawed. Indeed, scuppering the illegal ivory trade is an important matter to the Obama administration, which sees the issue as a threat to national security. Wildlife trafficking involving elephants, tigers, gorillas and rhinoceroses earns approximately $19bn each year for terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, the Lord’s Resistance Army and al-Shabaab.

The problem at the moment is that antique ivory trade is still legal, and this market is often used as a cover for illegal trade in ‘fresh’ ivory. Obama’s attempts at reform were derailed by groups such as the National Rifle Association, who claimed the ban would be a disaster for owners of antique ivory-inlaid guns, and the music industry, which defended musicians who played antique instruments incorporating ivory.

Crushed ivory. Photo credit: Gavin Shire/USFWS

Crushed ivory. Photo credit: Gavin Shire/USFWS

According to Leigh Henry, a wildlife trafficking expert at WWF, the administration is now working towards a compromise. Rather than requiring authorities to prove that an ‘antique’ is in fact illegal, as is currently the case, the burden of proof could be reversed so that sellers would have to provide proof of the item’s provenance.

The public destruction in New York is the second in two years in the USA, and one of several recent symbolic events worldwide that mark a growing movement to raise awareness of the issue. Just two weeks ago, over 1,400lb (662kg) of confiscated ivory was publicly crushed in Beijing. Conservationists praised the move, calling it “the single greatest measure” taken to fight the illegal trade.

Critics claim that these destructions can drive up prices of illegal ivory and increase rates of trafficking, but Kelly Aylward, director of the Washington office of the Wildlife Conservation Society, countered that such events demonstrate the ivory has no monetary value.

The destruction is designed to send a message that ivory has no monetary value. Photo credit: Ivy Allen/USFWS

The destruction is designed to send a message that ivory has no monetary value. Photo credit: Ivy Allen/USFWS

“Events like this are really important,” said Aylward. “We want to let the American public know they should not be buying ivory and to send a message to other governments that the best way to manage illegally obtained ivory is to actually destroy it. It sends a signal that there is no monetary value to the ivory.”

Find out more at The Guardian.

Learn about the illegal ivory trade at the USFWS website.

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