Under the supervision of Oregon Zoo security, zoo staff packed 250 pounds of elephant ivory into a crate last week and shipped it via “Custom Critical” FedEx to Manhattan. Now held by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, the pieces will be mixed in with another ton of confiscated ivory this morning and pulverized into unsalvageable, sand-sized particles.
The Times Square ivory crush — organized by the USFWS and conservation partners —will spotlight the fight against the illegal trade in ivory. An estimated 35,000 African elephants are killed each year for their tusks, rapidly driving the world’s largest land animal toward extinction.
“By crushing the ivory, we are rendering it valueless and sending a clear message that the United States will not tolerate wildlife trafficking,” said David Shepherdson, deputy conservation manager. “We believe that bringing an end to the ivory trade in the U.S will help stop the illegal killing of elephants, and one way to do that is to raise awareness among consumers that buying ivory costs elephants’ lives.”
Elephant ivory is typically fashioned into ornamental objects, jewelry and trinkets. Americans are ranked second to the Chinese in ivory demand and holding.
Most of the ivory to be crushed in Times Square was seized by USFWS agents from a Philadelphia store in 2009. It had been maintained as evidence until criminal and civil cases concluded last year. The majority of the Oregon Zoo ivory collection was confiscated ivory donated to the zoo by the city of Los Angeles in 1988.
“The zoo planned on using the donated ivory artifacts for a museum exhibit about the challenges facing elephants,” said Grant Spickelmier, the zoo’s education curator. “No exhibit was ever created because of security concerns, and the majority of these items have been in storage for more than twenty-five years.”
The zoo has retained a few pieces of ivory for which ownership is still being confirmed, and a small amount for educational display and interpretations highlighting the current conservation crisis facing elephants around the world.
According to the USFWS, one ton of ivory represents at least 90 elephants. But as younger elephants are killed, the tusk weight per elephant decreases, making the number of dead elephants likely to be even higher.
While a federal ban now prohibits nearly all commercial imports, exports and interstate sales of elephant ivory, ivory sales remain uncontrolled within all but two states, enabling a black market for newly poached ivory. Earlier this month, a bill to ban ivory sales in Oregon failed. Groups opposing SB 913 fought hard to protect the ability to sell ivory in the state.
The Times Square crush is the second to take place in the U.S., and other countries are taking action as well. In April, the United Arab Emirates destroyed 10 tons of ivory. The governments of China and some African and European nations have also destroyed their confiscated ivory stockpiles.
The ivory crushed in Times Square will continue to be safeguarded by the USFWS, and will be added to ivory crushed in 2013 for use in the service’s Crushed Ivory Design Challenge, which aims to turn the crushed ivory into educational tools.