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US Ivory Crush Praised by Some, Questioned by Others

Nov 16, 2013 08:23 AM EST
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A Gabonese official is congratulating the United States after Thursday's highly publicized, but largely symbolic, destruction of nearly 6 tons of illegal ivory accumulated over the last quarter century.

Gabon was the catalyst for the US's move to destroy its stockpile of confiscated ivory, when in June 2012 the country's president Ali Bongo personally set fire to Gabon's seized ivory cache.

"Gabon was the first country, to send a clear and loud signal that it is determined to put an end to wildlife criminality by destroying its entire ivory stockpile," the head of Gabon's National Parks Agency, Lee White said, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

"We congratulate the United States for sending the same signal, which we hope will be heard around the world. We also encourage other states to do the same and fully audit and publicly destroy their seized ivory stocks," White said.

Some have argued that destroying ivory stockpiles will do nothing to drive down the high price the item commands on the black market.

"By destroying the ivory, you create even more ivory scarcity and increase the incentives for future poaching," said Matthew Yglesias, the economics and business correspondent for Slate. "It seems like the more reasonable approach would be to arrest and punish human beings who are committing crimes, and then sell the seized ivory and use the proceeds to finance more anti-poaching efforts."

The US Fish and Wildlife service, however, dismisses that notion.

"Our criminal investigations and anti-smuggling efforts have clearly shown that legal ivory trade can serve as a cover for illegal ivory trade," the FWS wrote in a fact sheet about Thursday's ivory crush. "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."

The destroyed US ivory stockpile contained thousands of confiscated tusks, ivory statues, ceremonial bowls, masks and ornaments seized at US ports or entry from smugglers, traders and tourists since a global ban on the ivory trade took effect in 1989, according to The Associated Press. The cache represented the deaths of about 2,000 elephants.

A rising demand for ivory, especially in East Asia, has led to a surge in elephant poaching throughout Africa. Between 2002 and 2012, nearly two-thirds of the elephants in Central Africa were killed for their tusks, according to the WWF. An estimated 32,000 elephants were poached last year, contributing the the black market price of ivory that stands around $1,300 per pound, the AP reported, citing the British non-profit Born Free Foundation. 

The WWF also lauded the US ivory crush, saying the ivory was valueless on the legal market.

"International law currently bans ivory trade across borders, and ivory originating from seizures or of unknown sources has been and always will be illegal. Also, since domestic ivory trade is illegal in all Central African countries, ivory has no legal market value," said to Bas Huijbregts, head of WWF's campaign against illegal wildlife trade in Central Africa.

"Destroying seized ivory therefore not only raises awareness about the crisis, but ensures that it will be kept out of the illegal ivory market."

Huijbregts said the illegal wildlife trade is one the the most lucrative illicit businesses around, citing its value at between $7.8 billion and $10 billion, behind only counterfitting, drugs, weapons, oil and human trafficking.

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