2 NY jewelers plead guilty to illegal ivory sales

Two jewelers peddled reams of ivory bangles, beads, statues made from the tusks of endangered and threatened elephants, prosecutors said Thursday as the men admitted to a wildlife crime.

Mukesh Gupta, Johnson Jung-Chien Lu and their companies pleaded guilty to illegal commercialization of wildlife, forfeited a combined total of more than $2 million in ivory and paid a total of $55,000 to aid the Wildlife Conservation Society's efforts to help elephants.

The jewelers' lawyers emphasized that the men admitted only to selling and offering ivory without a permit establishing it came from before the animals were protected in the 1970s.

But authorities and conservation experts said that much of the ivory was doubtless more recent and that stocking it in stores in Manhattan's diamond district inherently contributes to a worrisome boom in the illegal ivory trade.

"Poachers should not have a market in Manhattan," District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said at a news conference, standing before a table strewn with sized ivory rings, bracelets, complete tusks — and little carved figurines of the elephants from which authorities say it all came.

"If we only look at this issue as, 'Hey, I didn't have a permit,' and you ignore the consequences," Vance added, "you are fueling the trade of wildlife crime. You are encouraging and fostering the extinction of species."

Despite international efforts to clamp down on ivory harvesting, it is still in demand for jewelry, carved art and other items, authorities said. While the estimates and calculations are complicated, a June report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora said findings showed a rise in elephant poaching in the last decade.

New York state environmental law bans selling or offering to sell ivory without a special permit.

Getting the permit requires proving the ivory was harvested from before elephants were listed as endangered or threatened species in the U.S. The Asian elephant was designated endangered in 1976, and its African counterpart was listed as threatened in 1978.

Gupta, 67, is chairman of Raja Jewels Inc., a purveyor of pearls, unusual diamonds and other gems, according to its website.

As part of a plea deal that will spare him jail time or probation, he and the company surrendered about $2 million worth of ivory and paid $45,000 to the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo and others and is known for its efforts to preserve wildlife around the world.

Gupta's lawyer, David Holland, said at least some of the ivory his client had for sale might have predated the 1970s deadlines. He and Lu's lawyer, Ronald G. Russo, declined to specify where the jewelers had gotten the ivory.

Lu, 56, purchased the ivory items, "he knew the items were made from elephant ivory, and he described them as such to customers," Russo told a court.

Lu and his business, New York Jewelry Mart Corp., is giving up $120,000 in ivory and paying $10,000 to the conservation society.