The U.S. Government Crushed 1 Ton of Ivory in Times Square

Some of the items to be destroyed at the Ivory Crush in Times Square on June 19, 2015. Douglas Main

In the thrumming, billboard-besotted heart of midtown Manhattan, thousands gathered around several tables overflowing with ivory statues, carved tusks, letter seals and even an elaborate replica of a 5-foot-long boat, all made from dead parts of long-gone elephants, hundreds of them. Next to these obscenities idled a 25-ton rock-crushing truck. By the morning’s end, all the ivory would be reduced to small chips and a sawdust-like powder, carted out by police in black boxes.

The event, put on by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and host of other government and environmental organizations, brought people from around the country, and the world—from ambassadors to African nations to Hollywood film stars. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell boldly summed up the purpose of the event: “We aren’t just here to crush the ivory but to crush the bloody ivory trade.”

The so-called Ivory Crush on Friday was put on to raise awareness about the poaching of African elephants and the illegal ivory trade. The current demand for ivory is driving the elephants’ decimation: A total of 100,000 of the massive, intelligent animals were killed in just three years, from 2010 to 2012, according to a 2014 study.

IMG_7542 As many as 50,000 elephants are killed each year for their tusks, to be made into ivory. Douglas Main

And it’s getting worse: Perhaps as many as 50,000 elephants are now being killed each year. A study published Thursday in Science found that a large share of poaching takes place in two hot spots: one in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s northwest and the more important one in Tanzania. That East African country has lost 60 percent of its elephants in the past five years.

The lion’s share of the ivory present at the event was seized from a Pennsylvania art store, the owner of which is currently serving a 30-month prison sentence, said Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Ashe said Times Square was the perfect venue for the crush, as it is situated in the commercial heart of the United States, the second-largest market for ivory in the world behind China.

People cheered as the event’s organizers placed ivory items on a conveyor belt that carried them up to the rock-crushing truck, where they were summarily pulverized.

Ivory crushes and burnings have some critics, who argue that destroying the material could raise demand for the substance by reducing the supply. But various experts at the event said that wasn’t the case. Joe Walston, a senior conservationist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said these kinds of events help spread awareness about the extent of the problem. John Calvelli, also with the group, said that such occasions help spur legislation to cut down on trade in the material. After the Fish and Wildlife Service crushed 6 tons of ivory in Colorado in the fall of 2013, New York state banned the sale of ivory in June 2014.

Dereck and Beverly Joubert, National Geographic explorers-in-residence and filmmakers from Botswana, said the crush “very definitely reduces demand.” Until such material is destroyed, “we will always be fighting with people who want to take it,” Dereck said. The event helps show that these dead animal parts have no value, he added. Reducing demand in the U.S. “will help make our lives easier in Africa,” Beverly Joubert said.

IMG_7535 One of the ivory items, an elaborately carved boat, was destroyed last, to cheers, at the Times Square Ivory Crush. Douglas Main

Actress Kristin Davis (known for playing Charlotte Goldenblatt on HBO’s “Sex and the City”) became emotional when describing her involvement with protecting elephants (she made a documentary about the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a group that helps prevent poaching and raises orphans of slain elephants).

“That was an elephant’s mother, or father,” she said, gesturing toward intricate carved tusks and starting to cry. “It’s hard to talk about, but we have to. Never buy ivory, even if it’s ‘antique.’ These things come from living animals. In 10 years, if we don’t do anything, there may not be any more elephants.” 

IMG_7554 Close-ups of the statues that are now ivory dust. Douglas Main