Shards of ivory flew into the air in New York's Times Square on Friday as the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) crushed one ton of African elephant ivory in one of the most publicised anti-poaching events ever held.
The pulverised ivory was sent flurrying as fine grey dust, smack-dab in the middle of a square that 330,000 people pass through every day. An industrial rock crusher gobbled hundreds of figurines, utensils, trinkets and carved tusks, flinging an occasional chip into the gathered crowd.
The event comes as the global trade in illegal wildlife products soars to unprecedented levels – last year, a report found that poachers had killed 100,000 African elephants in just three years. A study published just this week reports that in Tanzania alone, a hotspot for ivory poaching, an estimated 50,000 African elephants are killed every year for their tusks. The species is considered "Vulnerable" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Overall, an average of 96 African elephants are killed for their tusks every day – approximately one every 15 minutes.
The ivory crush was supported by several conservation organisations, alongside US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees the USFWS, and the agency's director, Dan Ashe. Ashe called the crush a response to a “global epidemic of wildlife trafficking”, adding that much of the ivory being crushed had been seized just blocks away.
“We’re here because the US is intimately connected to this slaughter,” Ashe told a crowd at a press conference before the crush. “US leadership is critical to stopping it.”
Last August, New York passed the toughest ivory ban in the country, allowing only a few exceptions for musical instruments and antiques. New Jersey has passed a similar ban, while other states have introduced them into the legislature.
“New York is significant because it is a huge market for ivory,” the Wildlife Conservation Society's Joe Walston told Earth Touch News. “What’s more, New York City is a global leader. Other countries and cities look to New York – if they start taking a stand, more will follow.”
The Times Square crush is the second in the US in recent years – in 2013, six tons of tusk (equal to 2,000 elephants) confiscated over the previous 25 years was crushed in Denver. And the US isn’t alone – France, Hong Kong, Philippines, China and Belgium have all destroyed their stockpiles in recent times.
Ivory is most often carved into trinkets, utensils, religious figurines or jewellery, and can fetch startlingly high sums: just 30 grams – about the weight of a slice of bread – can sell for about $200. Entire tusks, carved or not, are also in high demand. Illegal ivory trafficking has been linked to international terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab, which gets an estimated 40 percent of its funding from the ivory trade.
Much of the demand for these products comes from Asian countries, most notably China, where as much as 70 percent of African elephant ivory ends up. In 2011, Chinese officials seized more than 23 tons of ivory – the equivalent to 2,500 individual elephants. China has been making strides in recent years towards eradicating the ivory trade, at least ostensibly. In January 2014, the country crushed six tons of its own ivory, and in February it imposed a one-year ban on imports.
But demand is not confined to Asia. The United States is the world’s second-largest market for ivory, with New York City the leading market for tusks and San Francisco trailing close behind. In 2014, the Obama administration announced a ban on commercial imports, exports and domestic ivory trade as part of a countrywide crackdown on wildlife trafficking.
“If the US and China shut down their ivory trades, the rest of the world will follow," Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Earth Touch News. "[The end goal] is to slam the door on the entire market for ivory."
It’s not a moment too soon. As Jewell pointed out to the crowd, at the very same time that we witnessed ivory being crushed in Times Square, an estimated six elephants were killed for their tusks in Africa.