“Once it’s in the country, controlling unlawful trade is tough,” says Steve Oberholtzer, the FWS special agent in charge for law enforcement. It’s difficult for agents to tell—and harder to prove—what is a genuine antique, especially now that some traffickers dye freshly harvested ivory to make it look old. Dating ivory has been impossible until very recently. Bomb-curve dating, a new testing method that came out this summer, allows scientists to detect radioactive isotopes within ivory that can date it to within a year of the elephant's death. It works by identifying the concentration of carbon-14, which has been in the atmosphere at varying levels since the atomic bomb tests. The method is still very new; the FWS doesn't use it yet.
The FWS chose to crush their stockpile of ivory partly because it is so difficult to tell legal ivory from illegal ivory, and letting any reenter the market muddies the waters.
Although the agency wouldn’t sell it as a matter of policy, past sales of stockpiled ivory in Africa in 1998 and 2008 significantly fueled the market, rather than satiating demand.
Several non-profit organizations, including the World Wildlife Federation and International Fund for Animal Welfare, are urging lawmakers to enact a moratorium on all ivory trade. Meanwhile, as the presidential task force works on an anti-trafficking strategy to be unveiled early next year, a group of non-profits and seven African governments recently agreed to an $80 million plan brokered by the Global Clinton Initiative to organize efforts like hiring guards and tightening customs facilities over the next three years.
Currently, between 420,000 and 650,000 elephants remain in the wild, and as the price of ivory soars, poachers are emboldened. This fall, hunters poisoned a watering hole in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park with cyanide, killing more than 80 elephants in one swoop. Other poachers capitalize on elephants’ emotional intelligence and allegiance to matriarch-led clans. Killing the matriarch, they know, will send the rest of the herd into confusion, making for an easy slaughter.
“What it looks like from the seizures [of illegally trafficked tusks] is they’re now killing whole families,” says Michelle Gadd, an elephant biologist and FWS Africa program officer. The agency is increasingly seeing tiny tusks from young elephants.
All of these goods are housed at the National Wildlife Property Repository, near the site of the crush. It’s where the FWS stores evidence that has been seized from illegal wildlife traffickers but not yet used in trial or shipped to educational institutions. With some 1.5 million items, it is a catalog of horrors organized by species, from rows of stuffed tiger heads to shelves full of cobra-skin boots and stacks of gutted sea turtle carapaces.
Now, of course, the ivory is gone, and the tiny chips will be reused for educational displays for zoos and other institutions. But there is still a row in the repository that is devoted to elephants, with boxes labeled “elephant teeth/toenails,” “elephant skin wallets,” and “elephant skin belts.” Nearby, four severed elephant feet sit lifelessly on the floor. Staring at this warehouse, a macabre shrine to lost life, a visitor has to wonder how soon ivory from illegal traffickers will begin streaming in again.