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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Elephants Over Ivory: Crushing the Illegal Ivory Market

Elephants over ivroy

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ivory Crush on June 19 in New York City’s Times Square renewed interest in the subject of elephant ivory and the associated poaching and wildlife trafficking that is directly leading to the decimation of some of the most charismatic and beloved animal species on the planet, including the African elephant. Some observers raised questions about our decision to crush the ivory and what other options we could explore besides banning ivory trade. These are important conversations, and we hope that people continue talking about the future of elephants. Our FAQ answers some questions, but we want to address some of the concerns we see most frequently. 

Our #1 take-home message is this: Ivory belongs to elephants and elephants only. With very few exceptions, like antiques, ivory that is not attached to a living, breathing elephant should have zero value to everyone. The fundamental reason elephants are being slaughtered is because people are buying ivory. If we stop the demand, we stop the slaughter and prevent the extinction of a magnificent species. In crushing confiscated ivory, we strive to make that message paramount and - combined with other actions - eventually crush the demand for ivory. That we are even having this discussion proves the Crush did succeed in bringing attention to the crisis. The bottom line: We choose elephants over ivory. Our feelings are the same for any animal threatened by poaching and trafficking. Rhinos over rhino horn. Tigers over tiger bone wine or other products made from tiger parts.  

Director Dan Ashe saw these elephants in Gabon. Photo by Dan Ashe/USFWS

The main questions we get concern economics. Almost everyone agrees upon the simple rules of supply and demand, which suggest that destroying any ivory would decrease the supply and therefore increase the value of other ivory. But it is not that simple. 

These are some of the factors we considered when deciding to crush the illegal ivory:

  1. LAW: The ivory crushed in this event was confiscated by the Service because it was illegal. At the time it was seized, it was taken out of the market, and because it was illegal, it cannot enter back into the market under any circumstances. Similarly, when law enforcement officials confiscate illegal drugs, they destroy them. It makes no difference to the supply of ivory whether the confiscated stocks are kept in a warehouse or crushed. But by crushing the ivory publicly, we have an opportunity to make a statement and educate the public.
  2. ECONOMY: To put this in perspective: The one ton of ivory we just crushed amounts to approximately 90 elephants. Every day, more than 90 elephants are slaughtered by poachers. The volume of ivory we crushed makes no real impact to the global, illegal, ivory supply whatsoever. Taking it out of the market does not increase the price of ivory, nor would we ever be able to "flood the ivory market" and reduce the market value of ivory to the point where poachers and traffickers would no longer be able to make money. The demand for ivory is so great that illegal traders will always be able to make money and we cannot take control of the market by any other means than stopping demand.
  3. LEGALIZATION and ENFORCEMENT: Some people suggest that we should legalize ivory trade to defeat poachers and to provide a legal supply. Legal trade is used to mask illegal trade and creates a gray area that is impossible to regulate as it is often impossible to distinguish legal ivory from illegal ivory. It also sends a confusing, mixed message to buyers. Is it OK to buy new ivory or not? We are convinced that legalizing ivory trade is not the answer.
  4. PUBLICITY: When we held our first Ivory Crush in 2013, we wanted to raise awareness of the poaching crisis and show U.S. leadership in the fight. It worked. Ten other governments have since destroyed their illegal ivory. China instituted a year-long ban on imports of worked ivory and committed to the eventual phase-out of the processing and sale of ivory and ivory products. By crushing our seized ivory in Times Square, one of the most visited places on Earth, our intention was to capitalize on recent momentum and once again shine the spotlight on the U.S. role in illegal ivory and the elephant poaching crisis. Our very public and well publicized actions showed the consequences of illegal ivory to people who might not understand the connection between their decision to buy ivory and slaughtered elephants.
  5. ETHICS: A few people question the need to take such a harsh stand against ivory, suggesting that the United States is not the problem. We have two responses to that: First, African elephants and other species preyed on by poachers are global treasures. We all have an obligation to do something.  If we do nothing, these magnificent creatures will be gone forever.  Second, the United States is a major player in the global wildlife trade. Much of the world’s trade in wild animal and plant species -- both legal and illegal -- involves U.S. consumers or passes through our ports on the way to other nations. Case in point: the majority of the ivory we crushed in New York City -- nearly one ton -- was from a single case in Philadelphia, a U.S. art and antiques dealer who subsequently received  one of the longest sentences related to wildlife crime in the United States to date.
  6. STRATEGY: The National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, issued by President Obama to stem illegal trade in wildlife, has a three-pronged approach: 1) strengthen domestic and global enforcement; 2) reduce demand for illegally traded wildlife; and 3) strengthen partnerships at home and abroad. Our Ivory Crush strengthened partnerships for sure, involving a broad diversity of NGO, governmental and private partners and attended by dignitaries from around the world. And it brought the plight of elephants to new audiences, hopefully reducing demand for ivory.

We understand that many people are very passionate when it comes to saving the world’s natural treasures like elephants. That’s AWESOME; we are passionate about elephants, too! Here are a few ways you can help: 

  • On Facebook, Twitter, even in real life, let your friends and family know that you would rather see live elephants than dead ivory. On social media, use the #IvoryCrush.
  • Know the facts. Elephants are massacred for their ivory. Even ivory that looks old may be from recently poached animals.
  • Don’t buy products containing elephant ivory.  Entire elephant families are killed and butchered just for a few pounds of ivory.
  • Learn about projects funded through our African Elephant Conservation Fund, which is fighting to save elephant habitat and elephants throughout Africa.
  • Proceeds from the Save Vanishing Species Stamp directly support the conservation of some of the world’s most familiar and threatened species.  Since its inception in 2011, more than 26 million stamps have been sold generating more than $2 million for conservation. Find more information about the tiger stamp at: http://www.tigerstamp.com/.

 Thank you for your support.

Bravo! Excellent piece. Next, please take the lead and set the bar by destroying tiger parts & products. Confiscated, pre-Convention & from tigers that have died in captivity. Help send a message to end tiger trade and tiger farming.
# Posted By Debbie Banks | 7/15/15 6:12 PM

When are they going to design and issue a new conservation stamp? I love the tiger but you could also do an elephant or a panda or many more animals and that would appeal to people who like a variety of stamp designs
# Posted By heidi newsome | 7/21/15 3:30 PM

Hi, the law authorizes one stamp, the Tiger Stamp.
# Posted By Matt at Fish and Wildlife Service | 7/22/15 2:11 PM
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