MANHATTAN (CN) — Between a popular Central Park picnic spot and concert bandshell, New Yorkers found a more uncommon sight on Thursday morning: more than a ton of elephant ivory being ground into gravel.
A few steps south of a platform set against the Central Park West skyline — just east of the famous Dakota building — stood a table covered and surrounded with artifacts, vases, trinkets, tusks, and tchotchkes crafted from the remains of roughly 100 elephants.
Parked to its left, a green industrial rock crusher stood waiting for an audience of hundreds of people — law enforcement, celebrities, students, activists and spectators — to feed the items one-by-one onto its conveyor belt and into the grinder on Thursday.
Gesturing to just one of the pieces slated for destruction, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s executive vice president John Calvelli told the audience about the bloodshed behind a small ivory Buddha perched upon an elephant adorning a taller Chinese carving.
“Five juvenile elephants were killed to make that small piece,” Calvelli said, to audible cringes from the crowd.
“Today, we’re not only crushing the massive haul of confiscated material you see here. We’re also crushing the entire supply chain that continues to bring this illegal material into the United States,” he added later.
The unusual ceremony — at least, unusual for New York — fell a little more than a week after prosecutors announced that the owners of the Manhattan antique shop Metropolitan Fine Arts pleaded guilty to illegal ivory possession.
In September, authorities arrested the shop’s owners — brothers Irving and Samuel Morano — upon finding more than $4.5 million worth of smuggled ivory following a yearlong undercover investigation that ended in the largest seizure in the state’s history.
Moving quickly to destroy their wares, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance teamed up with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos to make sure the 126 artifacts never hit the underground market again.
“You see some of the videos and the testimonies from the frontlines where this is happening, and it’s hard not to be overtaken by the emotion of it, by the sheer emotion over the tragedy that befalls the countries involved, the communities involved, and the people who lose their lives,” Seggos said.
Authorities estimate that more than 1,000 African rangers have died trying to deter the trade, not counting the collateral damage of the shadowy underground market.
“The people who go after elephants like this, these aren’t hunters,” Seggos said. “These aren’t subsistence farmers. They’re not your straightforward collectors of trophies. These are terrorists and gangs.”
Several of the event’s speakers repeated the astounding claim linking the ivory economy to terrorism, and Seggos said in a one-on-one interview following the ceremony that this connection has a long history.
“I’ll give you an example,” he told Courthouse News. “I was in Kenya in 1994, studying wildlife management on the Somali border in Tsavo [East] National Park. Elephants were being slaughtered then by Somali terrorists coming across who were the original al-Qaida affiliates.”
This was four years before al-Qaida would launch simultaneous truck bombs on two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, attacks widely seen as a precursor of the 9/11 attacks.
Vance, the district attorney behind today’s haul, said his prosecution would not have been possible without the passage of laws effectively banning the sale and purchase of ivory throughout the state of New York.
“We have an important role to play in New York because unfortunately, we’ve been part of the problem,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Dan Donovan, a Staten Island congressman who tightened that law, also spoke at the ceremony about how the issue transcends partisanship.
“I’m the only Republican in New York,” he quipped, with no small degree of exaggeration.
A controversial figure from New York City’s most conservative borough, Donovan, a former prosecutor, made national headlines for failing to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was placed in a fatal chokehold while being arrested for selling loose cigarettes near the Staten Island Ferry.
His fight against the ivory trade has been much less publicized.
Weaning itself from an illicit trade that pulls in between $7 and $23 billion per year, New York recently dropped from first to third place as a U.S. destination for smuggled ivory. The United States and China have been the primary destinations for the black market.
Authorities credit tightened legislation and amped up enforcement for the Empire State’s improvement.
While fairly new here, public ivory destruction has been used for decades around the globe as a warning shot to smugglers and poachers.
Kenyan paleoanthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey began the practice of burning ivory to discourage the trade in 1989.
His tradition has since caught on in dozens of countries, including China, France, Hong Kong, Chad, Italy and the United States, where the Fish and Wildlife Service destroyed a slightly smaller haul two years ago in Times Square, roughly one mile south of today’s event.
The thinking behind the tradition can be summed up in a chant that a group of teenagers from the Central Park Zoo’s summer camp belted out before the ceremony.
“Crush the ivory! Crush the demand!” they shouted.
The Guardian reported that some economists have waxed skeptical of that reasoning.
Under the law of supply and demand in classical economics, a diminishing supply increases the value.
But Seggos believes that events like these have made an impact.
“There are now laws in several states,” he told Courthouse News. “There are now edicts coming out of China. I think the events draw attention, and I think that’s why we’re doing this today: to draw attention to the problem.”
And the need for a solution is agreed to be urgent, with the Great Elephant Census finding last year that poaching drove a 30 percent decline in Africa’s savannah elephants between 2007 and 2014.