They’re calling it The Crush.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service plans to destroy six tons of elephant ivory on Thursday to draw attention to the ongoing decimation of wild elephants by poachers. Wildlife service officials will grind up tusks, trinkets and carvings seized from traffickers over the past 25 years. The tusks are typically trafficked in the illegal Chinese and Japanese ivory market.
“What they do is horrific,” Wendie Wendt, executive director of the Seattle-based Big Life Foundation, said of the poachers. “They’ll lame them so they can’t move, and they will go after them with an electric chainsaw while the elephant is still alive to get that ivory.”
What’s been described as industrial-scale poaching has reduced the African wild elephant population by two-thirds in the last 10 years. The numbers are fluid, but it’s estimated that 25,000 to 35,000 African elephants were slaughtered by poachers last year.
Poaching has nearly decimated the elephant population: In the 1930s, there were 5 to 10 million wild elephants in Africa. Today, there are fewer than 500,000. There are an estimated 40,000 Asian elephants in the wild now, down from 200,000 a century ago. Big Life, a nongovernmental organization, hires local people to protect the elephants and prevent poaching. There are 315 Big Life rangers and 31 outposts to cover two million acres.
“We are the only group that has cross border patrols,” Wendt said. “But elephants don’t pay attention to borders. Poachers don’t pay attention to borders. So we don’t pay attention to borders.”
Big Life was founded by photographer Nick Brandt, who spends months at a time photographing wildlife around Amboseli National Park along the Kenyan-Tanzanian Border.
The ivory trade was banned in 1989, but in 2008, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora species, allowed four countries to hold a one-off sale of their government-confiscated ivory. Though CITES stopped the controversial sale in 2010, Wendt said it was too late. Reopening the ivory market unleashed an elephant bloodbath.
“The floodgates were open and it continues,” Wendt said. “The statistic is that one elephant is lost every 15 minutes due to poaching alone. A month ago in Zimbabwe, we lost 300 elephants because poachers laced their watering hole with cyanide.”
A 2013 CITES study has found that the illegal ivory trade has doubled since 2009. Today, illegal ivory is the third largest contraband market worldwide, behind drugs and human trafficking.
The report concluded that poaching is spreading because of rising demand primarily from China and weak governance. The trade reportedly funds terror groups like Al-Shabaab, which mounted the mass attack on a Kenyan mall earlier this year.
In July, the Obama administration established a task force to devise an anti-poaching strategy by January. It also promised $20 million to combat poaching in Africa.
The Crush was postponed from October because of the partial federal government shutdown. Some of the ivory dust may be turned into a monument to the slaughtered elephants.