Intricately carved elephant tusks, ivory statues big and small, and ivory trinkets purchased by eager tourists all were turned to dust on Friday as wildlife officials crushed more than a ton of confiscated ivory in New York City's Times Square.
"For a brief moment, Times Square stood still for Africa's elephants," Wildlife Conservation Society president Cristián Samper said in a statement. "The United States today was not just crushing ivory from poached elephants — it was crushing the bloody ivory market. It was declaring that we will join many other nations to do our part in ending this crisis."
Poachers kill more than 30,000 African elephants every year for their ivory, taking the elephants out at a faster rate than they can reproduce. And they threaten more than elephants' survival. They murder park rangers working to protect the elephants, and are from the same organized crime gangs that traffic drugs, firearms, and people, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
The United States is the second-largest market for ivory in the world, just behind China. Since President Obama issued an executive order in 2013 directing the authorities to step up their efforts at combating wildlife trafficking, the FWS has tightened regulations on both international and domestic ivory sales.
Last summer, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo banned the sale of ivory in the state, which is believed to be the largest market for ivory in the nation, according to the governor's office.
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Despite these actions, the illegal market in the US appears to be thriving.
"Legal sale of ivory continues in the US, providing an opening for illegal, freshly poached ivory to enter the country," World Wildlife Fund's Ginette Hemley said. "The fact that the US has another ton of confiscated ivory to destroy so soon after it crushed a six-ton stockpile in 2013 offers a glimpse into just how significant the US illegal ivory market is."
The 2013 ivory crush occurred in Denver, Colorado. The agency plans to release a proposed rule that would ban ivory trade almost entirely later this year.
China appears to be following a similar strategy. In May, after crushing nearly 1,500 pounds of ivory in Beijing, the China's State Forestry Administration announced a plan to strengthen its control of ivory sales and eliminate domestic ivory trade.
"If China makes good on its promise, it will be a game changer for wild elephants," Hemley told VICE News. "But China has made it clear it cannot be expected to act alone, pointing specifically to the need for the US to strengthen its own ivory policy."
There's another potential game-changer for elephants in the works: DNA analysis. In a paper published last week in Science, University of Washington biologist Samuel Wasser used DNA from confiscated elephant tusks to show that most illegal ivory can be traced to elephants from just two areas in Africa.
In ivory seizures made since 2006, eighty-five percent of forest elephant ivory can be traced back to a protected ecosystem within the Congo River basin, while 85 percent of savanna elephant ivory came from East Africa, mostly from the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania and the Niassa Reserve in Mozambique.
"Understanding that vast amounts of this major transnational trade is focused on two primary areas makes it possible to focus law enforcement on those areas and eliminate the largest amount of illegal killing," Wasser said.
Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro