The hub of America’s illegal ivory trade -- a business that kills about 35,000 African elephants a year – is right here in New York, wildlife experts say.
Poachers in Africa are smuggling the precious material, harvested from the tusks and teeth of elephants, whales and other animals, and dealers are selling it to jewelry and antique stores, experts say. Those stores then sell to shoppers, some of whom likely don't know that they're violating the law when they buy it, experts say. According to a recent report on ivory markets in the U.S., there were about 11,300 ivory products for sale in New York City in 2008 – nearly half the products sold that year nationwide. San Francisco, the runner-up in U.S. ivory sales, had about 2,700 ivory products on the market.
The trade has been very difficult to police, despite the high stakes, experts say. But lawmakers and conservationists hope new legislation in New York, and new tighter federal regulations, will change that.
“Poachers should not have a market in Manhattan,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who successfully prosecuted two local ivory dealers in a $2 million bust in 2012. “It is unacceptable that tusks from elephants wind up being sold as mass-produced jewelry and unremarkable decorative items in this city.”
Ivory smuggling is just one part of a $10 billion a year illegal animal trade that plagues the country's ports – especially those in New York and New Jersey.
Lelani Sanchez, a supervisory wildlife inspector for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Newark, says her inspectors have found everything from leopard skins to elephant feet to live birds hidden in a passenger's pants.
“You might find bags and bags of seahorses,” she said.
Basil Liakakos, the chief agricultural specialist of the Customs and Border Protection service in Newark, once found 19 pounds of bush meat -- antelope and cane rat -- butchered from wild species in a passenger's luggage.
But perhaps the largest concern of the moment is ivory.
“Last year it was estimated over 35,000 elephants were killed in the wild,” said John Calvelli, executive vice president for public affairs at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “That would work out to 96 elephants a day. One every 15 minutes." Since 2002, the elephant population in Africa has declined by 76 percent, experts say.
Ivory trade was banned worldwide in 1989. But the illegal trade continues nonetheless, and is still estimated to be worth about $30 million a year – money that experts and lawmakers say goes partly to fund terrorist organizations.
Recently, New York state Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, a Democrat from Lindenhurst, introduced legislation that calls for a complete ban on ivory sales, as well as tougher penalties for those who violate the law. Currently, conservationists say the law is complicated and difficult to enforce, since ivory harvested before 1989 is legal to buy and sell, and there is no burden on the ivory owner to show its origins.
The legislation is pending. Experts say Sweeney's bill, and an executive order recently signed by President Obama tightening federal rules, could make a significant difference.
“If we don't do something we are helping to see the end of this incredible animal," Calvelli said.