Earlier this summer, two tons of confiscated ivory was crushed in New York City’s Central Park. Trinkets, statues, and jewelry all crafted from the tusks of at least 100 poached elephants were destroyed, with some of the items estimated to be very valuable. For instance, one pair of carved ivory towers was worth $850,000.

So why was all of this ivory turned into dust if was so valuable? The ivory crush was to show New York’s commitment to take a stand against the illegal ivory trade. Elephant poaching is has reached international crisis levels. For decades, elephants have faced the looming threat of extinction as tusks are savagely ripped from their faces to satisfy the global demand for ivory. This illegal trade is fraught with corruption on every level, and profits benefit dangerous terrorist groups.


Ivory crushes are intended to bring public awareness and the urgent need to stop this wildlife crisis. According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), government officials at events like the recent New York ivory crush, in about two dozen countries in Africa, Asia, and North America, have destroyed more than 200 tons of seized illicit wildlife products.

It is estimated that around one elephant is killed every 15 minutes for their tusks, totaling out to the loss of 100 elephants a day. Given the slow reproduction rates of elephants, many scientists believe they could be extinct from the wild within the next 20 years.


The Global Ivory Ban

In the 1970s and 1980s, the population of African elephants was essentially sliced in half, from 1.3 million to a mere 600,000. In an effort to protect the elephant population, an international ban on ivory was enacted in 1989. The positive result of the ban was undeniable: ivory became taboo, markets dried up, prices bottomed out, poaching declined, and elephant populations began to stabilize.


But the trend didn’t last. Under the legislation, any ivory that was in circulation before the ban could still be imported and exported. In light of this “loophole,” new ivory has been able to slip into circulation with traders falsifying documents and antiquing ivory products to make them appear as if they pre-date the ban.

Since January 2012 alone, more than 103,000 elephants are thought to have been slaughtered by poachers. And unfortunately, wildlife law enforcement agents cannot keep up or compete with well-funded, violent, criminal networks that poach elephants and move ivory. Criminal groups around the globe are able to run thanks to the profits made from the illegal wildlife trade. The Elephant Action League carried out an eighteen-month investigation that uncovered the ties between the sale of elephant ivory and funds for the terrorist organization, Al-Shabaab. These profits enable terrorist organizations to purchase ammunition and weapons. Considering a kilogram of ivory can sell for $3,000 on the black market and the statistic that 35,000 elephants are poached for their ivory every year … we can only imagine the funds available to these organizations.

But Are Ivory Crushes Effective?

Now, animal welfare advocates are once again left with a resolve to fight at international, national, and state levels to protect elephants, rhinos and other species killed for their body parts. What’s one way to draw attention to the dwindling elephant population? Ivory crushes.

Ivory crushes started way back in 1989 when Dr. Richard Leakey, the newly named director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, needed a unique way to draw attention to the poaching crisis.


Instead of lobbying in the traditional way, Dr. Leakey decided to burn the country’s entire stockpile of confiscated ivory, which included 12 tons of tusks worth around $3 million (which would be $5.75 million today).  




“The idea was to communicate that ivory has no value, except to the elephant,” Dr. Paula Kahumbu, CEO of the Nairobi-based conservation agency WildlifeDirect told Atlas Obscura. “Like the PETA fur campaign in the 1960s, those who owned ivory began to feel guilty and uncomfortable, as their trinkets and jewelry represented death. The destruction led to a public shaming, and demand collapsed, leading to a drop in the price of ivory. In turn, this meant profitability for poachers. Traffickers evaporated and poaching stopped,”

From there, a domino effect happened with other countries joining in and hosting their ivory crushes. For instance, in July 2011, the Lusaka Agreement Task Force burned five tons of ivory. Denver, Colorado, crushed six tons of ivory in November 2013 and China destroyed exactly one-tenth of a ton more in January 2014.

Many of questioned whether ivory crushes are effective, given how complex the elephant poaching industry is. Joe Walston, the Vice President of Global Conservation for the Wildlife Conservation Society said of those who criticize the ivory crushes, “like criticizing a car for not making coffee in the morning.” Instead, they’re “a symbolism of commitment [that] needs to be followed up by action.”


But are ivory crushes actually doing the opposite of what they intend?

According to Dr. Daniel Stiles, the act of crushing ivory stockpiles is actually increasing the global demand for ivory, causing the price of raw ivory to skyrocket, giving poachers and traders, even more, of an incentive to illegally slaughter animals.


The publicity that is drawn to ivory crushes is adding fuel to the fire, motivating poachers to work even harder. And research backs this idea. The UNEP‘s findings that poaching has, in fact, increased steadily since 2006. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, 2011 was the worst year for elephants since before the ban was put into place.

With the most recent ivory crush in New York City earlier this summer, one of the world’s busiest cities, a definite symbolic gesture may have been sent to wildlife poachers. But with ivory crushes garnering heavy media coverage, perhaps what we really should be discussing is proactive measures in place to prevent illegal poaching from happening in the first place.

Ivory crushes are simply an empty gesture that doesn’t change that fact that “a couple thousand elephants” (the words of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) were unjustly killed in the first place.

What’s the Solution?

Instead of showing after the elephant is killed that poaching is not okay, animal welfare advocates need to draw more attention to the many wonderful organization that are working tirelessly to stop poaching from ever happening in the first place.

For instance, the World Wildlife Fund has developed a comprehensive plan to mitigate the many crimes wrought against the elephant populations of Africa and Asia. Part of this plan involves educating local communities on the importance of the elephant population to reduce human-elephant conflict. The WWF has also helped to establish wildlife reserves for elephants and employs local community members to protect these areas.

TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network works in collaboration with the WWF and the International Union for Conservation of Nature to keep a record of global ivory seizures. Monitoring this data helps to identify illegal trade routes and mark threats to elephant populations.

The best thing you can do to help end the wildlife trade is to stop purchasing wild animal products. Every ivory trinket was created from an elephant that was killed. By spreading awareness about the plight of elephants and all of world’s endangered wildlife, we can help people see the consequences of their actions. Share this post and help save these amazing animals while they’re still here.

Lead image source: Megan Coughlin/Flickr