US to destroy 6 ton illegal ivory stockpile

If you're starting to hear more news about elephant and rhino poaching, it's no surprise. The wildlife trafficking crisis has been growing in recent years, but the United States seems to be gearing up to do much more to fight the problem.

On July 1, President Obama issued an Executive Order on the issue of combating wildlife trafficking. With that order, Obama established a cabinet-level Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking and ordered it to present a plan of action on how the US should address the trafficking crisis.

We're beginning to see the fruits of their labor. On Monday, the White House announced a series of steps they are taking to combat this crisis, including that the United States will be destroying its 6 ton stockpile of illegal ivory it has been collecting for 25 years. More on that below.

Also on Monday, the White House announced the establishment of an Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, which is made up of chief executives from major wildlife groups, as well as other legal and financial partners.

This is an important step for these groups to be coordinating in this way, because, as one of those members, Cristian Samper, President and Chief Executive Officer of Wildlife Conservation Society, told Juliet Eilperin in mid-July, "elephant poaching has reached such a crisis point that the world’s leading conservation groups are launching a coordinated strategy to address the problem."

Eilperin had also reported that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made combating elephant poaching one of her new causes.

Clinton was at the White House Forum to Counter Wildlife Trafficking on Monday and had this to say about the issue:

“Illegal poaching and trafficking also represent an economic and security challenge in Africa and beyond. Wildlife trafficking has become more organized, more lucrative and more dangerous than ever before. Poachers now use helicopters, automatic weapons, night vision goggles, satellite phones to overwhelm and even murder park rangers and other local authorities.”

Clinton also spoke out against the consumer demand for ivory that fuels this killing:

A zero-tolerance strategy was the only way to stop wildlife trafficking, Clinton said.

"You can't be a little bit OK with buying ivory goods, because that opens the floodgates. Therefore we are doing everything we can to stop the trafficking, stop the demand and stop the killing," Clinton said.

Aside from the high-profile attention being given to this important issue, one of the biggest pieces of news announced Monday was that the United States will be destroying a 6 ton stockpile of illegal ivory it has been collecting for 25 years.

John R. Platt at Scientific American explains where the stockpile is kept and what it consists of:

Whole elephant tusks. Carved ivory figurines and statues. Ivory knives, jewelry, chopsticks and trinkets. Six tons of this stuff, all of it illegal, sits in a secure warehouse where box after cardboard box rests alongside wooden pallets that overflow their bloody bounty onto the floor.

No, this isn’t in China or South Africa or Japan. It’s in the U.S.—Denver to be specific.

That’s the site of the National Wildlife Property Repository, where illegal products seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), customs agents and other officials line the shelves and hallways.

Platt goes on to note that there is some disagreement over what to do with the ivory:

U.S. authorities are prohibited from selling seized items but have debated whether destroying them is the best approach. Ivory sell-offs in 2008 and 2010 supported by the 178-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna proved controversial. Even if U.S. officials could sell seized ivory, some say it would not make a dent in illegal market demand.

Grinding up all ivory in October "will make more room in our warehouse," repository supervisor Bernadette Atencio said.

She fears it will fill again soon.

I fear it will too, because I don't think crushing this stockpile will do much more than make room in that warehouse.

In August, I wrote about how five tons of elephant tusks were burned in the Philippines and how China wasn't sure what they should do with their stockpile of confiscated tusks.

It upset me to think that these pieces of history would be burned, but at the time, I hadn't seen this fascinating piece by Laurel Neme at National Geographic on how difficult it is to destroy ivory by burning.

Unless the fire is sustained at high temperatures for long periods of time, burning does not destroy elephant ivory. Instead, it chars the exterior and leaves the inside intact.

Consider what happens with human teeth. Whether subjected to fiery car crashes or raging house fires, these tiny pieces endure. That’s why they’re used for identification when everything else is annihilated.

Even in the cremation process, teeth survive. (A processor often pulverizes the unburned teeth into a fine powder.)

This means that some of the tusks that were burned could have been recovered from the fire and reintroduced to the market.

This is why the US stockpile in Denver will be crushed with rock grinders instead of burned. However, as Neme explains, even this poses challenges:

Yet even crushing is difficult, as the Philippines discovered during a failed test a day before the destruction event. Authorities experimented with a road roller, but it got nowhere.

Officials then spent the evening sawing tusks, assuming that smaller pieces would be easier to crush.

That didn’t work.

At the main event, the road roller left the ivory pieces unchanged, so workers switched to hammering the tusk fragments with the scoop of a backhoe—and then incinerating them at a crematorium for animals.

I'm assuming we have some better equipment and will be able to crush these tusks sufficiently, but I'm still left wondering if this is the smartest thing to do.

© CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

In my piece in August, I suggested that if the goal is to stop poaching, we need to educate people about the crisis and create such a stigma around owning ivory that few people want to buy it. So rather than hiding the seized ivory in a warehouse or burning or crushing it away from the public eye, I suggested that perhaps using it as art would be a better way to dissuade poachers, while also raising awareness about the issue.

To be clear, I don't mean making objects of beauty to be admired or sold to collectors.

And I don't mean giving the tusks out to artists to use in whatever fashion they want.

When I wrote that there should be a major art exhibit displaying elephant tusks, I am picturing something that is going to be disturbing, but powerful and ultimately inspiring for all attendees.

Here's how I first explained it a few weeks ago:

We can read about 1,000 tusks being confiscated or the many tons that are sitting in storage, but I think the tusks need to be seen for the horror of poaching to be fully appreciated.

Imagine walking into a room with walls covered from floor to ceiling in white elephant tusks. Perhaps there's a glossy, deep red floor for contrast and a symbolic nod to the bloody ways these tusks are obtained by poachers.

In another room, individual tusks are paired with photographs of the macabre scenes from where the elephants were killed or left to die. Educational materials in the style of a museum would educate visitors on the poaching crisis and how the ivory market leads to these horrific acts. Revenue from admission could go to anti-poaching organizations.

To make something like that happen, the Clinton Foundation or this Task Force or an artist like Ai Wei Wei or someone of his calibre would need to sit down together and come up with a way to publicly display the horrors these poachers have committed.

Would that not have a stronger impact on the public than hearing that 6 tons were ground to dust or cremated in some industrial facility?

I've read conflicting reports as to whether the grinding of the US stockpile will be public or not. I'm hoping to find out soon, because this is an important distinction.

I don't think crushing these tusks in private will make as powerful of an impact. And if it is public, where is it going to happen? Are the rock crushers in a quarry somewhere? Or will they be brought out onto the Washington Mall? Or Times Square? By "public" do they simply mean "open to the public" but not televised or broadcast? If that is the case, this too leaves much to be desired.

My point here is that elephants may be extinct in a matter of decades and we're talking about how to destroy stockpiles of evidence of their existence. Is this the wisest choice?

I've suggested this major art exhibit as a very public event to highlight this crisis, but even that could be incorporated into the eventual destruction of the ivory. If the US and other governments are convinced that crushing these tusks is the way to go, I'm willing to concede that for security reasons, it is wise to just rid ourselves of these stockpiles. But I cannot understand how it makes sense to just crush, burn and erase these things from existence and think it is really making that big of a difference.

We live in a time where everything can become media. If there is not a ceremony, a place or a visual to come together for shared global mourning over these losses, how are we going to really learn?

Tags: Africa | Conservation | Preservation