Why the U.S. Will Crush, Not Sell, Illicit Ivory

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To combat elephant poaching, the United States is preparing to publicly pulverize its 6-ton stockpile of illicit ivory this week, which has likely left many wondering, why not just sell it instead?

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Though ivory can fetch higher prices than gold, many conservationists argue that destroying confiscated trinkets, carvings and tusks rather than selling them sends a signal to buyers, traffickers and suppliers that ivory will no longer be tolerated as a legitimate commercial product.

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Today the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) called on other governments to follow the United States' lead and crush or burn their ivory stockpiles, too. [Elephant Images: The Biggest Beasts on Land]

"Right now, Africa is hemorrhaging elephants," Patrick Bergin, CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation, said in a statement. "The only way to staunch the movement of illegal ivory is to wipe out the demand, and that begins with destroying stockpiles and stopping trade."

The AWF is also urging countries to go a step further and halt their domestic ivory trade until all elephant populations are no longer threatened. After poaching halved Africa's elephant population in the 20th century, the international ivory trade was banned in 1989. Domestic sales, however, continue in countries like the United States and China. These lucrative legal markets give a cover — and a monetary incentive — for ivory smugglers, the organization argues.

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"The stockpiles along with the legality of the ivory trade in some countries creates ambiguity and doubt, and makes law enforcement and the differentiation between legal and illegal ivory almost impossible," reads the AWF's position on ivory stockpiles. "These conditions create the impression that ivory is a legitimate commodity to be traded, held and speculated on, and which will hold or increase in value over the long term."

Currently, it's estimated that more than 30,000 African elephants are killed for their ivory tusks annually. Last year, a report from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, found that elephant poaching was at its highest in a decade.

The uptick in killings has been tied to an unsustainable demand for ivory, especially in Asia. Bergin argued that rising affluence in Asia and poverty in Africa has created "a perfect storm with elephants at the center."