US ivory stockpile to be publicly destroyed on Obama's order
President Obama hopes smashing of tusks and carved items will send a message to traffickers, with African elephants nearing extinction
The ivory stockpile in the secure US government warehouse - six tonnes of scarred tusks, glossy Confucius statuettes with US$10,000 price tags, coffee table items, and too many chunky cuff bracelets to count - represents millions of US dollars and the slaughter of thousands of African elephants.
On Thursday, at US President Barack Obama's instruction, and in front of visiting dignitaries and television cameras, every last intricately carved and high-dollar item will be fed into the jaws of an industrial-strength rock-crushing machine and smashed into splinters.
The hope is that this public act of destruction will serve as a turning point. White House officials and conservation groups calculate that demonstrating the president's commitment to breaking up the illegal ivory trade will persuade other governments to take similar measures, and help put the wildlife traffickers on the run.
But it may be too late. Two decades after an international ban on ivory sales, an explosion in wildlife trafficking has once again brought African elephants to the brink of extinction. Nearly 100 African elephants are killed every day for their tusks to feed huge demand for ivory trinkets from newly wealthy buyers in Asia who see ivory as a status symbol.
US security officials say the global trade in illegal ivory has grown to US$10 billion per year - just behind drugs and human trafficking. The huge profit potential has also turned ivory into an important line of financing for terrorist networks such as al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda affiliate that carried out September's attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi.
"This is not the kind of poaching that we have dealt with in the past," said Dan Ashe, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency leading the US fight against wildlife trafficking. "It's syndicated and sophisticated criminal organisations that are driving the trade."
The grisly results are visible in the vast storehouse outside Denver, ordinarily off limits to the public, where six tonnes of ivory seized by US law enforcement officials over 25 years is heaped among stuffed tigers, caiman ashtrays, and other artefacts of the illegal wildlife trade.
America is one of the top destinations for illegal ivory from Africa, as well as an important transshipment point for the carved ivory trinkets bound ultimately for the leading markets in China, Japan, Thailand and other Asian countries. But the six-tonne haul is only half that seized in China last week alone - 3,188 pieces of elephant tusk were found in Xiamen , with an estimated value of 603 million yuan (HK$767 million) on the black market.
The sheer volume of trade is depleting populations of African adult male elephants, said Bernadette Atencio, supervisor of the US Fish and Wildlife repository, reaching for a polished tusk carved with renderings of the "big five" in African game.
"I think the baby tusks are the most heartbreaking," she said. America hopes to send a message with the public obliteration.