More than 130 pieces of illegal African elephant ivory seized in Boston were part of a 6-ton stockpile destroyed Thursday as part of a massive US government effort to highlight the escalating slaughter of the animals for their tusks.
The illegal ivory trade has more than doubled since 2007, according to several advocacy groups, which estimate that more than 30,000 elephants are being killed each year.
China is by far the largest market for ivory, where the durable white material is prized as a sign of wealth. The illegal market in the United States is much smaller, but confusing laws can make it difficult to differentiate legally obtained ivory, such as antiques, from illegal ivory.
Seizures in Boston are rare, although in recent years two men on Nantucket involved in making and selling scrimshaw — the engraved and carved whale teeth and bone that were a whaling-era tradition — were convicted in a smuggling case that included some elephant ivory.
“It’s difficult to quantify how much elephant ivory is coming through Boston,’’ said David Sykes, resident agent in charge in New England for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which pulverized the ivory in Colorado Thursday.
Most of the Boston pieces were hidden in a 2010 shipment of large, hollow wooden handicrafts from the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the service, which seized the items. Other pieces that were destroyed date back to 2008 and were seized from individuals who brought back jewelry or handicrafts intercepted at Logan International Airport.
The African handicraft cache was first spotted by US Customs and Border Protection agents at Logan who thought the items, destined for a cargo hangar at Kennedy International Airport in New York, had something suspicious inside, Sykes said.
Fish and Wildlife inspectors were called and broke open the wood to find scores of carved figurines, masks, and even a carved elephant tusk inside. No one was prosecuted because agents were unable to ascertain whether the importers knew smuggled goods were inside.
The destruction of confiscated ivory at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge near Denver is part of a broader government campaign to crack down on poaching. The United States is leading a task force to tackle the problem, and US Secretary of State John F. Kerry offered a $1 million reward this week for information leading to the dismantling of a Laos-based criminal operation linked to killing elephants, rhinos, and other species for their ivory.
“Rising demand for ivory is fueling a renewed and horrific slaughter of elephants in Africa, threatening remaining populations across the continent,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said before the ivory was loaded into an industrial-sized rock crusher and pulverized.
In the past decade, an estimated 11,000 forest elephants were killed in Gabon’s Minkebe National Park alone, US officials say, and the population of forest elephants plummeted by an estimated 62 percent across Central Africa. Elephant massacres have taken place in Chad, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic in the past year, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
In September, former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton announced an $80 million global effort to end poaching, through a partnership of the Clinton Global Initiative, conservation groups, and several African countries. It will pay for more park guards to protect elephants and dog teams at key transportation hubs, among other steps. Clinton drew a link between terrorist groups and poaching, including the Al Shabab group that in September attacked an upscale mall in Kenya.
This is the first time the United States has destroyed a large amount of ivory. Most of it was kept as evidence in criminal and civil cases or for educational or training purposes.
But the stockpile — which included rows of raw tusks, jewelry, and figurines — had grown large, and the service wanted “to send a clear message that the United States will not tolerate ivory trafficking and the toll it is taking on elephant populations,’’ said a statement from the Fish and Wildlife Service. It said it conservatively estimated that the ivory represents a couple of thousand elephants.
“We aren’t the largest demand country, but we are the country that can do something about it: We are setting an example for the world,’’ said Beth Allgood, US campaigns director for the Cape Cod-based International Fund for Animal Welfare, an advocacy group that wants a moratorium on all ivory sales.
The group says federal laws are confusing and can lead to mixing illegal ivory with legal ivory. While the United States generally prohibits the import or export of African elephant ivory for commercial purposes, loopholes exist. For example, raw tusks taken as a trophy after lawful sports hunting are allowed, as is antique ivory with proper documentation.
But not everyone against elephant poaching supports a moratorium or Thursday’s crushing. Some ivory experts say the action could escalate poaching.
“Governments that destroy seized ivory are ignoring the basic economic facts of how the ivory markets work,’’ said Daniel Stiles, a wildlife trafficking expert and member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature/Species Survival Commission’s African Elephant Specialist Group.
“To the ivory traffickers who buy tusks from poachers, ivory stock destruction simply signals that ivory is getting scarcer, so kill more elephants before all the ivory is gone.”The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit newsroom based at Boston University and WGBH. Beth Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @BethBDaley.