Victor Gordon’s illegal trade in elephant ivory was delivered a final, crushing blow Friday. U.S. officials who confiscated hundreds of carved ivory artworks from Gordon’s strange exotic store in downtown Philadelphia fed it into a stone crusher at a showy demonstration in the middle of Times Square.
As car and truck horns honked, electronic screens promoted Broadway shows and onlookers snapped pictures with phone cameras, ivory Gordon paid tens of thousands for was laid on the conveyor belt of a green grinder. It rolled up the belt and dropped into its teeth. Ivory seized from vendors in other raids across the country was included in the ton that was destroyed. The machine spit out crushed white pieces so small that, from afar, it appeared that grains of rice were falling into a collector.
Before the belt started rumbling upward about 11:15 a.m., Joseph Martins, director of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, the last of nearly 10 speakers to address onlookers. “I know everyone is anxious to see the crush of all the worthless items to my left and your right. The reason they’re worthless is because they’re not attached to an elephant,” he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staged its second major ivory crush in one of the busiest shopping districts in America because it wanted everyone to see, and it wanted to send a message that it hopes to do the same to an illegal trade in which poachers slaughter elephants with guns, pull the tusks off their faces with machetes and smuggle it around the world.
“In just a three-year span” ending last year, said the first speaker, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, an estimated 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory. “That’s an average of 34,000 elephants per year killed in Africa. In other words, while we’re sitting here, while we are at this event, about six more elephants will die, maybe more, because they’re now going after the babies.”
Most ivory winds up in China, where it is highly valued as intricately carved art. But since ivory sells at roughly $1,000 per pound, everyone who touches it along a trade route that often flows from Africa to America to Asia gets a share of the price, including groups that commit terrorist acts.
China, criticized at one time for doing little to stop ivory from being traded illegally across and within its borders, has pledged to join the U.S. in stepping up enforcement. Weeks ago in May, China crushed more than a ton of ivory seized by Chinese police.
Although the U.S. is widely viewed as having the world’s toughest enforcement against wildlife trafficking, the government maintains only a small force of police and investigators police enormous international ports where animal goods dead and alive flow. That includes the largest port in the nation for wildlife, the 4-million-square-foot cargo facility cargo area at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where Gordon’s smugglers shipped and mailed packages and then drove contraband away under the noses of police.
About 330 Fish and Wildlife inspectors and agents patrol the largest U.S. ports, roughly the same number as 30 years ago. Since then, wildlife trafficking has grown from a nuisance into the fourth-largest global black market behind the trades for drugs, guns and humans for sex, estimated at $20 billion per year, according to police and economists.
“For Africa’s vanishing elephants, these are the most desperate of times and more needs to be done,” said Carter Roberts, president and chief executive of World Wildlife Fund. “Just last month, China… announced it would end its ivory trade. The US must do the same, urgently.”
Gordon’s curious shop on north Third Street near the Delaware River was essentially a tomb for African elephants, with “one of the largest known caches of illegal elephant ivory in the United States,” prosecutors wrote in court records said, worth about $1 million. Before he was sentenced in June last year to 2½ years in prison, Gordon first purchased ivory from African nationals living in the United States, then paid them to travel to at least three African nations, buy ivory and sneak it across the border.
That ivory ended up in New York with other seized pieces Friday because the city is a top destination for wildlife artifacts, legal and illegal. Two tons of ivory was seized three years ago from jewelers in the city who received no jail time, Martins said. But that case led the New York state legislature to pass some of the nation’s laws against selling ivory, and the strongest criminal penalties.
One of the legislators who voted for the law, state Sen. Brad Hoylman, explained how the crush happened on Broadway. Hoylman said he wrote to the Northeast regional director for Fish and Wildlife about six months ago. “I said, ‘Why don’t we have an ivory crush in the middle of Times Square? We could bring attention to the issue.’ ” Fish and Wildlife accepted the offer.
“We’re here today to say we will not stand for the sale of illegal ivory … the murder of elephants,” Hoylman said. “And one day I look forward with my husband to take my daughter … so she can see her favorite animal, the elephant, thriving in the wild where they belong.”
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