U.S. authorities on Thursday crushed 6 tons of seized ivory, each piece cut from dead elephants, signaling resolve to kill a $10 billion illicit trade linked to international crime and terrorism.
Tusks and carved objects seized from airports and border crossings over the past two decades were loaded into a blue rock-grinder near a warehouse at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge where the ivory was kept, and pulverized it all into fine chips.
"By taking this action, the United States will help raise the profile of the issue and inspire other nations," said Judy Garber, deputy assistant secretary of state, one of the senior Obama administration officials in Colorado for the invitation-only event. "All of us have to step up our game and work together to put an end to this before we lose the species forever."
Poached ivory may have financed the recent Somali terrorist attack on Kenya's Westgate mall, Garber said: "That issue is being looked into."
This first U.S. government destruction of illegal ivory was orchestrated as part of a broader campaign including increased funding to fight poaching and crackdowns on consumers. President Obama in July launched a task force. Diplomats have engaged governments in China, Vietnam and Thailand.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday offered a $1 million reward for information leading to the dismantling of the Xaysavang Network, a Laos-based criminal operation that that "facilitates the killing of endangered elephants, rhinos and other species for products such as ivory."
The State Department said the group has affiliates in South Africa, Mozambique, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and China. Profits from illegal activities by this group and others, the department said, funds other illicit activities such as narcotics, arms and human trafficking.
Consumer demand for ivory objects is blamed for a surge in killing African elephants. Expanding wealthy classes in East Asia covet ivory items, many of them carved in Chinese government-backed factories.
At least 25,000 elephants were illegally killed in 2012, and even more this year, according to the 178-nation UN-backed Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
That's the most since CITES banned ivory commerce in 1989. The ban was relaxed in 1997 to let southern African nations with elephants cull herds and sell ivory. CITES allowed ivory sell-offs by governments in 2008 and 2010.
The global population of elephants, estimated at around 600,000 in 1989 is estimated by CITES at 472,000 today.
Assistant U.S. Interior Secretary Dan Ashe compared the intensifying slaughter of elephants today to mass killings of bison in the late 19th century that brought the species to near extinction.
"We have a moral obligation to respond," he told group of U.S. officials and global wildlife conservation leaders gathered at the Arsenal to witness the crush. "You have the chance to crush wildlife trafficking and save these magnificent creatures."
"Sex and the City" star Kristin Davis, a patron of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which has worked to raise orphans of slaughtered elephants in Africa, said the orphans themselves now are in jeopardy.
U.S. officials estimate elephants could go extinct in 8-10 years if the current rate of slaughter continues.
"The soul of the human species is what is at stake if we allow elephants to go extinct," said "True Blood" actress Kristin Bauer van Straten, an ambassador for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Van Straten, 46, threw carvings her late father brought to the U.S. after his military service into the grinder for destruction Thursday. She urged other Americans who have heirloom ivory objects in their possession to destroy them, calling it an ethical choice.
"Are we playing more for the team of consumerism and things? Or are we playing for the team of life?" van Straten said.
U.S. officials are ramping up action because ivory smuggling funds crime and terrorism.
A Sept. 6 report from the Director of National Intelligence says demand for ivory and rhino horn so outpaces supply and is so lucrative that "criminal elements of all kinds, including some terrorist entities and rogue security personnel, often in collusion with government officials in source countries, are involved in poaching and movement of ivory and rhino horn across east, central and southern Africa."
The report echoed congressional testimony by then-Sen. John Kerry last year, before he replaced Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, about armed men crossing from Sudan into Central African Republic and from Somalia into Kenya to kill elephants and smuggle out ivory.
The crush Thursday was was highlighted at U.S. embassies abroad, where diplomats have worked to draw attention to the toughening U.S. approach to illicit wildlife trafficking.
"This material has no economic value because it is seized and forfeited material," said Robert Dreher, acting assistant U.S. Attorney General for the environment, pointing at the pile of ivory before it was loaded into the crusher, promising stronger prosecution of poaching and smuggling inside the U.S.
"The scale of this criminal activity demands a vigorous response," he said. "This is criminal activity that the U.S. will not tolerate."
Wildlife conservation leaders in Denver are calling on Congress to fund the African Elephant Conservation Act with $5 million a year for anti-poaching in Africa and to ban any import, export and interstate movement of ivory. Night vision gear will be an essential tool for African rangers because poachers work at night using sophisticated weapons, said Born Free U.S.A. vice president Adam Roberts.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have said a monument to slaughtered elephants, using the crushed ivory chips, is envisioned.
Some critics contend symbolic destruction of ivory might boost the value of illegal ivory, which a CITES study said sold for $8,185 per kilo in China. They argue U.S. officials should re-inject the ivory into the market to try to make it less lucrative.
But a widening movement of elephant supporters is pressing for total prohibition.
In June, Kristal Parks, director of Denver-based Pachyderm Power, staged a 10-day hunger strike outside China's embassy in Washington, D.C. She displayed signs - China! Elephants need your help - and sent letters to the ambassador inside.
"No amount of ivory will drive down the price because the lust for ivory is insatiable," said Parks, 63, who works several months a year in Kenya and was there during the mall attack.
"All ivory should be illegal," she said. Elephants are "profoundly noble and majestic in stature with a heightened awareness and sensitivity that dwarfs our own. I couldn't bear to live in a world without them."
Bruce Finley: 303-954-1700, twitter.com/finleybruce or firstname.lastname@example.org