The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the illegal ivory trade today is a $10 billion global industry. ©Don Martinson

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pulverized nearly six tons of illegal African and Asian elephant ivory. A conservative estimate of this ivory, which was seized at our nation’s ports of entry from the late 1980s to the present, is that it represents 2,000 animals. The crushing was carried out at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside of Denver and meant to draw attention to the global poaching crisis.

Commercial ivory trade was banned in the United States in 1989. The demolishing of our stockpile is the first time the U.S. has destroyed such large quantities. The event was attended by news media from around the world, causing some to speculate that it was staged to pacify wildlife advocates who are urging increased international enforcement to stop illegal traders from killing elephants and turning their tusks into trinkets and statues.

Elephants are now in danger of going extinct in 12 years. Will countries that destroy their ivory inventories really make a difference in saving the planet’s pachyderms?


Elephant tusks—considered exotic and rare and characterized by a pearly, lustrous surface—have been carved into luxurious objects for centuries.

Demand for “white gold”

Because of the high price it garners on the black market, ivory is known as “white gold.” Samuel K. Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, has calculated that the worldwide ivory trade was worth $264 million from 2000 to 2010. He believes the value today is far higher, based on the soaring amount confiscated globally. The demand, states a Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network (TRAFFIC) report, is fueled by China’s booming economy, which has created a vast middle class with the ability to buy ivory carvings prized as status symbols. Poached rhino horn is also sold to the affluent in Asia, who think it can cure a series of ills, including cancer and hangovers, and that it can boost virility. Last year alone, about 745 rhinos were poached throughout Africa—the highest number in two decades.

Some are worried that if countries keep their ivory stockpiles, they could become a target for stealing. This year, $5.3 million in ivory, rhino horns and leopard skins was seized in Nigeria; $2.2 million of ivory was recovered in Togo; and a $1.4 million ivory shipment from Kenya was intercepted. In 2006, 3.7 tons of ivory vanished from the Philippine inventory; and in 2012, thefts were reported at government vaults in Zambia and Botswana.

According to Secretary of State John Kerry, the illegal ivory trade has doubled worldwide since 2007, with the United States the second-largest retail market (after China) for illicitly acquired ivory. In addition to our nation’s recent ivory destruction, Kerry announced that a $1 million reward has been set up to help dismantle elephant and rhino trafficking syndicates, such as the Xaysavang Network, a Laos-based operation with affiliates in China, Malaysia, Mozambique, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam.

The pulverized U.S. ivory represents at least a couple thousand elephants. ©Eric Rock

Just a well-meaning gesture

Destroying ivory is hardly new. According to World Wildlife Fund, Kenya held the world’s first large ivory bonfire in 1989, torching 12 tons in an event that drew international attention and helped to create a global ban in 1990 on ivory sales between countries. Kenya held a second burn in 2011. Zambia set fire to 9.5 tons in 1992, and Gabon burned nearly five tons in 2011. This year in June, the Philippines became the first Asian country to destroy its stocks when it burned and crushed more than five tons of ivory confiscated since 2009.

Despite all of this, elephant poaching is at record levels. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) estimates that poachers kill 35,000 African elephants annually for their ivory. Rising incomes and traditional values in China are not the only drivers. Civil wars, the shock of the 2008 global financial crisis and corruption are helping to supply ivory in a way that’s divorced from final markets. It’s likely that a lot of ivory is again being stockpiled.

What’s even more alarming is that the era of the freelance local poacher is over. Today, poaching is more likely to be done by far more menacing professional armed gangs, sometimes with military ties and equipment.

Seventy years ago, there were about five million elephants in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, just several hundred thousand are left. ©Eric Rock

Critics say that the U.S. destruction of its ivory signals criminal organizations that ivory is becoming scarcer, causing a race to accumulate even more ivory. Others believe the ban is the wrong strategy and that a regulated trade may be the way forward. Ramping up competition against the smugglers by dumping a lot of ivory into the markets would depress prices and run poachers out of business.

As for the U.S.’s crushed ivory, the Fish and Wildlife Service is working with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to develop a creative and informative use for it.

Do you think destroying ivory stockpiles will stop the decimation of the planet’s elephants before they disappear forever?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,


If you would like to see elephants in the wild, please take a look at our Africa safari tours and Asia trips.