Federal wildlife officials plan to crush more than 6 tons of seized ivory in Denver next month

Federal wildlife officials plan to crush more than 6 tons of ivory in Denver as part of a new push by the United States to combat illegal wildlife trafficking worldwide.

The ivory that is being stored in a warehouse near Denver was seized around the country in an effort to block imports of tusks from elephants that have been slaughtered for their ivory.

The seized items include large balls of ivory delicately carved in layers and whole tusks that have been sculpted into pagodas and scenes from daily life.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said publicly crushing the expensive smuggled tusks and carvings is part of an effort to put an end to what has become a $10 billion illegal industry. Steve Oberholtzer, the agency's Denver-based special agent in charge, is lining up rock-grinders to pulverize the ivory in October.

Governments cooperating with the efforts to stem the slaughter of elephants already have destroyed some of the ivory seized from poachers, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Monday at a White House forum where the initiative was launched.

"The U.S. supports these actions, and we want to make sure we are doing the same," Jewell said.

President Barack Obama issued an order July 1 to fight the killing of protected wildlife, stop the trafficking, and reduce demand for illegal rhino horns and ivory. Members of a newly created advisory council sketched a broad approach of enlisting governments, companies and nonprofits worldwide, the Denver Post reported Tuesday (http://tinyurl.com/pzmcz9g).

U.S. officials said they will also give $10 million to help fight poaching in Africa and will try to persuade Asian governments to outlaw trinkets and other products made from elephant ivory.

Tactics being considered include using technology to monitor elephants, a social media campaign in China to stigmatize the industry, and cooperation with companies such as eBay to curb commerce.

The National Wildlife Property Repository at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado holds smuggled wildlife parts seized at seaports, border crossings and airports nationwide. Other items seized include leopard and tiger heads, bear claws and crocodile boots.

Much of the ivory no longer fits on shelves. Piles of tusks and boxes full of bracelets and decorations clutter the floor. Forklifts are used to clear pathways between heavy pallets of the plunder.

Some tusks are from young elephants, representing generations lost because elephants cannot reproduce until age 25, and poachers usually kill elephants before sawing off their tusks.

U.S. authorities are prohibited from selling seized items but have debated whether destroying them is the best approach. Ivory selloffs in 2008 and 2010 supported by the 178-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna proved controversial.

Even if U.S. officials could sell seized ivory, some say it would not make a dent in illegal market demand.

Grinding up all ivory in October "will make more room in our warehouse," repository supervisor Bernadette Atencio said, but she fears it will fill again soon.

Federal authorities plan to save some of the pieces of crushed ivory to use in a memorial for the tens of thousands of elephants that have been killed.


Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com