By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Today, US officials will crush a stockpile of six tons of confiscated ivory items in an attempt to make a statement about “blood ivory.”

Some of the carved, confiscated ivory that is being pulverized.

Some of the carved, confiscated ivory that is being pulverized. (Photo: USFWS)

At first blush, this may seem like the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is taking a bold stand against the illegal ivory trade. The pulverized ivory, representing thousands of elephant tusks, will be donated and put on display at some future date.

“This is a way to say to people we are not putting a value on ivory. We’re putting a value on the lives of the elephants,” said Azzedine Downes, president of the International Fund for Animal Welfare told Al Jazeera.

But what if people don’t take the point?

What if the US yells really loudly, like the tough kid on the playground — ‘Take that ivory smugglers! We took your toys and stomped on them! — and the smugglers don’t listen?

The more I consider this ivory crushing “solution”, the dumber it sounds. Crushing valuable carved ivory art pieces worth millions of dollars won’t curb the appetite for ivory that drives the smuggling and poaching. That powerful, illegal market claimed claimed the lives of more than 30,000 elephants last year alone. (The ivory trade was banned in 1989.)

Why not sate the dark market ivory consumers by selling the confiscated stash and using the money to better protect living elephants? That’s a bold idea too, and it has more upside.

Call me a pragmatist, but this seems like a far better solution. Imagine the handsome conservation fund that could be used to help save elephants from poachers. It’s well-known that preserves in Africa and Asia are underfunded. Why not funnel millions of dollars from the sale of the ivory to them, while simultaneously sopping up some of the demand?

Elephant (Photo: Michelle Gadd)

Elephant (Photo: Michelle Gadd)

This could provide the elephants with a respite, and it’s not just my crazy idea. I recently heard about a similar proposal to help the endangered rhinos of Africa. This may seem untoward to some, but it’s supremely practical: Harvest the horns from selected aging rhinos, which can be done without harming the animals, to satisfy the traders. Legalize the whole process, tax it and pour the profits back into rhino conservation. It makes sense.

Instead, the USFWS has unilaterally decided to crush the ivory — and the artwork — a move that reeks of an imperialist attitude; the US assumes that the message it sends will be the message received.

Having read the press release, I know US officials are proud of their plan, which they see as a principled approach to contraband, and presumably, they consulted with others before coming up with it. Other nations have taken a similar approach, they report in their release. Furthermore, they say that selling the ivory would increase poaching, though their logic is a little hard to follow:

“Our criminal investigations and anti-smuggling efforts have clearly shown
that legal ivory trade can serve as a cover for illegal trade. Therefore, selling the ivory stockpile and allowing it to enter
the marketplace could contribute to increased elephant poaching and
stimulate even more consumer demand for ivory.”

And so we will be left with a museum exhibit that amounts to a pile of crushed biowaste that hopes to devalue ivory. A few people may grab on to that concept and it will cause them to think. Meanwhile, those driving the illegal ivory trade will likely remain impervious to such messaging. The buyers of illegal ivory tend to congregate at the top of the socioeconomic ladder, existing in a world apart, and mostly in Asia. Will they step down from their high rises for the special privilege of being castigated by the US with its traveling, anti-art pulverized ivory exhibit?

Pity the elephants.

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