In November, US federal authorities crushed six tons of seized ivory in Denver to demonstrate their resolve to stop the $10 billion a year illegal ivory trade. The mountainous pile of countless tusks and carvings, collected over two decades by customs, were pulverized into fine chips in front of a cheering crowd of activists, celebrities, and high-ranking officials. This was a poignant and powerful move, alongside President Obama’s new task force to crackdown on poaching. And yet, in some ways it symbolized a crucial weakness in the the government’s approach to tackling poaching and slaughter of elephants, since it left a huge loophole in the form of “legal” trade of ivory.
When I visited Hong Kong last spring, the gateway through which most of the world’s illegal ivory passes to China, everywhere I saw “antique” shops selling ivory carvings like these, despite the strict ban on importing new ivory. In fact, Hong Kong customs officials make some of the biggest confiscations of illegal ivory anywhere–but the antique shops get by, because they can argue that they’ve acquired the pieces before the 1989 ban on ivory trade.
But this picture wasn’t taken in Hong Kong: it was taken on 57th and Fifth Avenue in New York City. This stretch of shops, hotels, and galleries represents one of the most expensive real estate in the world, with Tiffany’s, Van Cleef and Arpels, Bergdorf Goodman, Chanel, and many other upscale luxury stores too tedious to name. At first, the effect of seeing this window display filled with ivory tchotchkes is eerily like being transported to any street in Hong Kong. Then, once you get over the disorientation, you begin to feel shock–and outrage, that this is possible, here in America.
Who in America is adding to the demand of hideous skulls and toads made of ivory? To think that some of the world’s 472,000 remaining elephants were killed to make these meaningless tchotchkes brings on anger; but the fact that these are legally on sale in one of New York’s busiest thoroughfares sparks moral outrage. The fed’s demonstrative crushing of the ivory, or Secretary Kerry’s offer of $1 million reward on information leading to a criminal ring involved in poaching of elephants and rhinos, can mean only so much when they leave a gaping loophole in the form of legal ivory trade. Conservation groups are calling for Congress to ban all import, export, and inter-state sales of ivory. In addition, any ivory item that is currently on sale should be confiscated without exact proof of its provenance. Just as galleries cannot sell a work by a famous artist without proving how it obtained the piece, any ivory seller must be legally required to prove paperwork of how, and when it acquired each piece.
But can putting more restrictions on ivory trade in the U.S. discourage further poaching? Kristal Parks, the director of nonprofit group Pachyderm Power, states simply: “all ivory should be illegal.” If it is impossible to outlaw the possession of ivory, perhaps the next best thing is to ban the sale of ivory items. It is a difficult proposition to realize, since many private collectors and shops would oppose such a measure. But the stakes of not taking such steps are simply too high, and too irrevocable. At the current rate, it is estimated that elephants could go extinct in the next 8-10 years. Can we really look our children in the eyes and say we’ve not tried everything in our power to stop the elephants from disappearing?
Photo: Peaceful Dumpling