On Friday June 19 nearly one ton of illegal elephant ivory was crushed in New York City’s Times Square. The public event was intended to make a dramatic statement that the United States will not tolerate trafficking in illegal ivory.
Global demand for ivory is rising, and illegal trafficking has been accelerating to keep pace. Between 2010 and 2012 poachers killed more than 100,000 African elephants to supply the black market demand. Elephants are being killed at a faster rate than they can reproduce, and some populations are facing local extinction. One purpose of the crush is to set an example that will pressure Europe and China, which imports 70 percent of the world’s illegal ivory, to crack down on trafficking.
“Illegal wildlife has no value,” says Gavin Shire a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which is conducting the crush. “The whole idea of destroying it is so that we remove it from its monetary value, and encourage people to stop buying ivory.”
But occasionally illegal ivory does have value. Last week, USFWS allowed Bryna Freyer, senior curator at the National Museum of African Art and Terry Drayman-Weisser, director of conservation and technical research at the Walters Art Museum to evaluate the ivory they intend to crush on Friday. According to Freyer they found two “pieces of interest,” both carved African side flutes. She believes they are antiques that may have cultural significance and could be candidates for repatriation to their country of origin. One in particular is carved in the distinctive style of a specific tribe in Nigeria. “Because it is recognizable, I feel we should make sure that we’re being culturally sensitive to the piece,” Freyer says. “They’re being reviewed, and may end up being crushed or destroyed at a later date, but we felt that we need more time to review them.”
Regardless of what happens to the flutes, they raise the issue of conflicting messages. On one hand, the crush is intended to express intolerance for illegal trafficking and devalue black market ivory. On the other, deeming even one piece worthy of rescue and preservation highlights the potential value of rare and antique ivory carvings.
“When this stuff is lost, we lose a chance at better understanding the people who made the object,” Freyer says, adding that piecing together cultural history is like assembling a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle. “You think OK, we’ll get rid of [these pieces]. It’s not going to make a difference, because there are 498 other pieces. But you never know which is the piece that’s going to really help you understand.”
According to Fryer, aside from the two antique flutes, the ivory in Friday’s crush offers no cultural or historic understanding. It serves only to illustrate how legal sales can mask the illegal market and why trafficking has been so difficult to combat. The sale of ivory within the U.S. remains legal provided it was brought into the country prior to the 1989 ban on imports and acquired legally. For most buyers, that’s nearly impossible to tell. The bulk of the ivory set to be destroyed in Times Square was seized by USFWS from a single dealer in Philadelphia after many years of undercover investigation.
Conservation organizations have been pushing for a complete ban on the sale of elephant ivory in the U.S., and the federal government is currently drafting new legislation that is expected to come close to that goal. In the mean time, New York and New Jersey have already banned ivory sales, and a similar ban just passed in the California House.
“The U.S. is a significant domestic market,” says Cristián Samper, president and CEO of Wildlife Conservation Society, which is a partner in Friday’s crush event, “and unless it closes its own markets, it has no moral authority to criticize China or others.”
Moral authority is sure to be about more than just prohibiting ivory trade. It’s something cultural institutions are increasingly faced with, not only as they consider the message of rescuing potentially significant artifacts from destruction, but also as they decide how and when to display the ivory in their collections. To some conservationists, ivory of any sort represents a slaughtered elephant and displaying it only elevates its value. Samper, who has held positions at the Smithsonian Institution, including serving as its acting secretary in 2007, takes a different stance. “As museums educate visitors on the cultural and historical significance of ivory, they have an opportunity to also educate their visitors about the importance of not buying and selling ivory,” he says.
Freyer agrees that she and her colleagues must take a new approach. “We can’t just put it in a room and say 'Oh it’s pretty,' anymore,” she says. “I think museums have to assume now that we are going to have to explain that this elephant died 150 years ago, and it was killed by a hunter within the culture, not by somebody leaning out of a helicopter with an UZI.”