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Elephant poaching gets center stage in NYC ivory crush

Ivory crush in New York Times Square
Ivory crush in New York Times Square. Photo Credit: Kelsey Williams/FWS

Public awareness of the global elephant ivory poaching crisis got a high profile boost today with the crush of 2,000 pounds (907 kg) of confiscated ivory in New York City’s Times Square.

The event was coordinated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), state officials, and a coalition of conservation groups to focus attention on the plight of elephants, which are being slaughtered en masse across the forests and savannas of Africa and Asia to supply the ivory business.

“Today’s ivory crush serves as a stark reminder to the rest of the world that the United States will not tolerate wildlife crimes, especially against iconic and endangered animals,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “The message is loud and clear: This Administration will stop the poachers in their tracks, stop the profits and work with our international partners to protect our global natural heritage.”

The crush comes a year-and-a-half after FWS destroyed six tons of contraband ivory. Since then, a number of countries have held similar events to pulverize illegal ivory so it won’t go back into the market.

Courtesy of the 96Elephants campaign

Yet elephant poaching remains at historically high levels, claiming 22,000-35,000 wild elephants a year. A study published today in Science showed that most of the elephant ivory coming into the market is from two areas: Tanzania and Mozambique in East Africa and Gabon, the Republic of Congo and Cameroon in West and Central Africa.

According, conservationists have stepped up campaigns targeting the demand side of the market. John Calvelli, Executive Vice President of WCS, which has been coordinating a campaign to stop elephant poaching, says that while crush only involves contraband ivory, it sends an important signal to the broader market.

“With the destruction today of more than one ton of confiscated ivory in the city that until quite recently hosted the largest ivory market in the United States, we send an important signal to the nation, as well as to other nations with active ivory markets, and to global wildlife trafficking networks that when it comes to ivory, the United States is closing for business. And not a moment too soon,” said Calvelli. “What we know is that demand for ivory is a key driver of elephant poaching. By destroying confiscated ivory, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service affirms the stated goal of the Obama Administration to bring the domestic ivory trade in the United States – one of the world’s largest markets — to an end.”

Confiscated illegal ivory. Photo Credit: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

Photo Credit: Kelsey Williams/FWS

On the morning of June 19, 2015, in Times Square, New York City, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with wildlife and conservation partners, hosted its second ivory crush event. One ton of ivory seized during an undercover operation, plus other ivory from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums was crushed. Photo Credit: Kelsey Williams/FWS

Iain Douglas-Hamilton, CEO of Save the Elephants, agreed.

“The wave of ivory destructions around the world reflects the global awareness that the ivory trade must end.”

But ending the ivory trade won’t happen unless the world’s largest consumer — China — joins the effort. Encouragingly, last month China said it would start to take steps to control the trade, a move that was immediately welcomed by conservation groups.

China’s timeline for implementing its pledge is still unspecified, but that hasn’t slowed conservationists who are pushing other governments and organizations to work together via programs like the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI), a policy framework that provides funding to elephant range countries to close domestic ivory markets, destroy ivory stockpiles, and support an international ban on the ivory trade.

Photo Credit: Kelsey Williams/FWS

Photo Credit: Kelsey Williams/FWS

Pulverized ivory exiting the crusher. Photo Credit: Alexa Marcigliano/FWS

“Signing on to the EPI is an essential important long-term step to truly end the ivory trade and ensure that elephants thrive in the wild,” said Calvelli. “It has been extremely encouraging to see the groundswell of support as more and more partners sign on to the EPI, but we need even more participation to support the African range countries in their call to protect elephants, and to make this a global movement to save elephants for future generations.”

Conservation groups are also working at a sub-national level, encouraging states and cities to ban all ivory sales. For example, last year New York and New Jersey banned the trade. California, Oregon, and Florida are among the states now weighing similar measures.

CITATION: S. K. Wasser, L. Brown, C. Mailand, S. Mondol, W. Clark, C. Laurie, and B. S. Weir. Genetic assignment of large seizures of elephant ivory reveals Africa’s major poaching hotspots. Science, 18 June 2015 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa2457

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