Recently the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service made a powerful statement after pulverizing an enormous stockpile of ivory, 6 tons of it to be exact, in efforts to bring awareness to the seriousness of the declining African elephant population. The event was held at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside Denver, Colorado in mid-November. Elephant poaching is a global crisis, supported mainly by organized crime syndicates.
“We’re doing this to send a signal to the world that we need to crush the illegal trade in ivory and wildlife products in general,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe stated. “These magnificent animals are in great jeopardy because of the commercial trade for their parts.” The ivory was pulverized into powder and small nuggets using a rock crusher that was about the size of two dump trucks.
The U.S. is prepared to pay up to $1 million for information leading to the dismantling of the Laos-based Xaysavang Network, considered one of the world’s most prolific organized crime groups trafficking wildlife said John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State.
Black market workings of the Xaysayang Network pull in an estimated $10 billion annually, contributing to arms, narcotics, and human trafficking in countries such as South Africa, Mozambique, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and China.
Elephant slaughter numbers are difficult to stomach, with an estimated 30 000 deaths in 2012 correlated with the illegal ivory trade. There are only 500 000 elephants expected to be alive in Africa today. “Within 10 years, at the current rate of poaching, central African elephants will likely be extinct,” said Crawford Allan, the WWF illegal wildlife trade expert and a senior director at TRAFFIC, a wildlife traffic monitoring network. “We will see a very bleak future for elephants unless we can turn this tide right now.”
The destruction of ivory stockpiles can make waves that change the world. When Kenya burnt its ivory in 1989 it precipitated the ban on international trade in ivory that served Africa’s elephants well for twenty years. In the past 5 years we’ve seen a new surge of underground ivory trade, likened to the growing trend of social status emblems made from ivory, particularly in Asian countries.
The extent of the ivory trade isn’t just affecting elephants and the environment anymore either, with terrorist groups like the al-Shabaab (the suspected affiliates behind the Kenya mall shooting in September) supposedly being funded by the underground money from the ivory black market. Ivory is considered the “white gold” in the African value system.
U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has stated that the U.S. intelligence agencies have discovered a link between other militant groups, such as the Janjaweed in Sudan and Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, and the illegal ivory trade revenues. Underground poaching and trafficking is considered one the world’s top illicit systems, right behind drug and human trafficking. This is part of the intention behind the crushing of the United State’s stockpile of ivory.
In July, President Barack Obama called on U.S. agencies and the international community to prevent the slaughter of protected wildlife, halt trafficking and curb global demand for ivory. The Obama administration also pledged to give $10 million to help push back against plundering in Africa, and has called on Asian governments to ban baubles and ornaments made from ivory.
However the problem still arises in monitoring the black market, a challenging task for law enforcement agencies. Poaching bands and smugglers are violent and armed with a wide array of dangerous weapons.
“We are being outgunned right now by these criminal syndicates,” Carter Roberts, president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, said at a Sept. 9 event at the White House at which the Denver crush initiative was announced. “They have night vision goggles, they have helicopters, they have lots of sophisticated arms. One of the key tools at our disposal is going to be technology and inventing new ways to catch the bad guys before it’s too late,” he added.
Samuel Wasser, the director for the Center of Conservation Biology at the University of Washington says that the one of the main challenges from the ivory trade comes from Asia’s appetite for art and jewelry made from ivory. It is becoming an increasing mark of “status” in Chinese society. The U.S. is right behind China however, and the crushing of the ivory stockpile is a monumental moment in the fight to end elephant poaching.
Organizations like IFAW, the international fund for animal welfare, have pleaded to put a freeze on all ivory sales until a more efficient means of differentiating older ivory and illicit ivory is created, suggesting a possible registration system for sellers and traders.
Perhaps the issue is more or less related to the value we place upon ivory. Material value has reigned over humanity for thousands of years, causing a magnitude of separation and destruction along the way. We must ask ourselves what true value means in deciding the direction of our future as a species. If we change our perspective on this matter, we will not only put an end to the ruthless slaughter of one of Earth’s most wonderful creatures, but we will also take a massive leap in the progression and survival of all life on the planet.