More than 130 pieces of illegal African elephant ivory seized in Boston are part of a six-ton stockpile that will be destroyed Thursday afternoon as part of a massive US government effort to highlight the escalating slaughter of the animals for their tusks.
The illegal ivory trade has more than doubled since 2007, according to several advocacy groups, which estimate that more than 30,000 elephants are being killed each year.
China is by far the largest market, where the white durable material is a prized cultural sign of wealth. The illegal market in the United States is much smaller, but confusing laws can make it difficult to differentiate legally obtained ivory, such as antiques, from illegal ivory.
Seizures in Boston are rare, although in recent years two men on Nantucket involved in selling and making scrimshaw, the whaling-era art of engraving and carving whale teeth and bone, were convicted in relation to a smuggling case that included some elephant ivory.
“It’s difficult to quantify how much elephant ivory is coming through Boston,’’ said David Sykes, resident agent in charge in New England for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which is pulverizing the ivory in Colorado Thursday.
Most of the Boston pieces were hidden in a 2010 shipment of large, hollow wooden handicrafts from the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the service, which seized the items. Other pieces being destroyed date back to 2008 and were seized from individuals who brought back jewelry or handicrafts intercepted at Logan International Airport.
The African handicraft cache was first spotted by US Customs and Border Protection agents who thought the items destined for a Kennedy Airport cargo hanger had something suspicious inside, Sykes said.
Fish and Wildlife inspectors were called and broke open the wood to find scores of carefully carved figurines, masks, and even a carved elephant tusk inside. No one was prosecuted for the crime because agents were unable to identify the importer, Sykes said.
The ivory crush is part of a broader campaign to crack down on poaching.
The United States is spearheading a task force to tackle the problem, and US Secretary of State John Kerry this week offered a $1 million reward for information leading to the dismantling of a Laos-based criminal operation linked to killing elephants, rhinos, and other species for their ivory.