Before the switch was flipped on the 25-ton rock crusher, New York Congresswoman Grace Meng told the Times Square crowd how her kids asked a simple question when she told them what she was going to do today: “Why would anyone want to hurt and kill elephants?”
And then the US Fish and Wildlife Service crushed one ton of ivory, most of which had been seized during undercover operations in New York City and Philadelphia. Representatives from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the African Wildlife Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Humane Society of the United States, and the World Wildlife Fund were all on hand. The event was hosted in Times Square because it's one of the most-public places on earth — and also because of New York's long-standing ties to the ivory trade.
I remember having the same thoughts as Meng's kids when I learned about animal poaching — specifically, hunting elephants to fuel the ivory trade — in elementary school years ago. As an adult I was aware that poaching was still a problem, but what I didn't realize was that elephant poaching has gotten worse.
It's hard to nail down exact numbers, but it's estimated that over 100,000 elephants were poached from 2011 to 2014, according to a study published last year in PNAS. That's the highest recorded level of African elephant poaching ever. An average of 34,000 elephants were killed each of those years, a significant portion of the 400,000 or so that live across the continent. "Maybe more, because [poachers] are now going after the babies," Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior, said at the event.
Ivory crushes have been going on for over 20 years, but the USFWS performed its first one in Denver in 2013. They crushed six tons of seized ivory at that event. "That crush drew worldwide attention," said Dan Ash, director of the USFWS. "It galvanized efforts here and abroad to tackle this problem."
It's expected that the Obama administration will announce new regulations soon requiring paperwork to verify the age of ivory in circulation. While trading has been illegal since 1989, older ivory is still allowed to circulate. Behind China, the US is the second largest ivory market.
The crush isn't all the USFWS is doing, Ash said. The group will post law enforcement agents in poaching hotspots such as Peru, Tanzania, Thailand, Botswana, and China. They're not just looking for poachers — traffickers are also being targeted.
Luckily, these agencies might have a new edge in their fight against poaching: researchers have found a way to locate where elephants are being slaughtered by matching DNA from their dung with confiscated ivory, according to a paper published in Science. Until now it has been hard to pin down trafficking routes. The researchers found that ivory is often shipped from countries different to where it was poached, and traffickers intentionally try to mislead authorities. By quickly analyzing the DNA of seized ivory, the hope is that law enforcement will be able to stop poachers more frequently.