Today, the spotlight will be on Times Square in New York as the US Government and US Fish and Wildlife Service crushes one ton of seized ivory. To be clear, ivory crushes or destruction ceremonies don't put an immediate end to the illegal trade in ivory, but they do bring much needed attention to the deadly issue - where a thirst for ivory kills one elephant every 15 minutes across Africa. Talking about the issue, raising awareness of the deadly trade and debate can lead to tangible action: ending loopholes in legislation, investment for Anti-Poaching and demonstrating to wildlife rangers on the ground that they are not alone in the fight; the world supports them and is equally at work to protect elephants.
As a front line, field based conservation organisation, we are witness to the horrors of poaching on a daily basis. Whether looking into the eyes of one of the baby elephants we are hand raising having been orphaned due to poaching, or treating a bull elephant with a poison arrow wound, so that he might continue to stride across the savannah.
Mwashoti was just a 1 year old calf when he stepped into a cable snare. As he tried to free himself, the snare cut deeper and deeper into his leg. By the time of his rescue, it had almost severed his leg off. The injury would have killed him and it is credit to our elephant keepers and vets that he's still with us today and walking on his injured leg, after four months of intensive treatment for both his physical and emotional trauma.
However his future is far from secure; while we can afford him the care and support he needs as he grows up, as an adult, he needs to be living back in the wild. Our Anti-Poaching Teams and Aerial Surveillance Initiative operates to protect elephants, but alone, they cannot win the battle. And every day wildlife rangers face the real threat of injury or death to protect our wildlife. In the past 10 years, its estimated more than 1,000 wildlife rangers have been killed in the line of duty.
Without ending all trade in ivory, we will be witness to the extinction of elephants in our lifetime.
In raising awareness, ivory crushing ceremonies can lead to a lot of debate - should we be crushing ivory when the funds of its sale could protect elephants? Having seen the pain experienced by Mwashoti at the hands of the ivory trade, led in part by stimulating more trade through 'one off' ivory sales, and knowing that our rangers are risking their lives every day to protect wild herds, I'd say: yes, we should be crushing the ivory. Returning it to the market implies it has a value, but that value is only to a living elephant.
As seized contraband, ivory should be destroyed by Governments, instead of being put back on the market. Drugs and counterfeit items are routinely destroyed, not sold for prevention programmes - why is ivory any different? And who do we sell ivory to? Elephants and people are losing their lives, with organised crime more entangled in the trade than ever before; failure to tackle this makes us complicit in the bloodshed.
Photo copyright: Gary Hodges
To put an economic argument forward, it also costs the tax payer far less to destroy illegal ivory, than it does to police it and prevent stockpiles from theft. Even wildlife products in museums aren't safe - as shown when rhino horn was stolen from a museum in Ireland in 2013.
Crushing one ton of seized ivory in New York's iconic Times Square will not end the trade or save the elephant. But it will draw significant media attention to the issue, presenting a symbolic message to the world that the USA will not stand idly by while organised crime syndicates and all those implicit in the illegal ivory trade profiteer off the brutal decimation of a species. Other countries in Africa, Asia and Europe have similarly crushed or burned ivory stockpiles, showing the same determination.
We must learn that the only value in ivory is to a living elephant, not in some trinket or so called piece of art. We wouldn't create art from the teeth of murdered people, it would understandably cause mass outrage; what arrogance to believe that it is any less barbaric when the victim is an elephant.
Like other countries before it, we think the US should be praised for showing the illicit ivory trade has no place on its shores. Following on from individual States that are strictly regulating any ivory sales within their borders, events such as today's crush can play a powerful role in demonstrating to State lawmakers the importance of this issue and why it is paramount for them to act to ban ivory sales in their States.
The DSWT will be there today, represented by our Patron Kristin Davis and joined by Melissa Sciacca, Executive Director of the U.S. Friends of the DSWT, watching this symbolic and emotional crush as we remember the elephants who lost their lives to make up this haul. They will be representing our Rangers, Elephant Keepers, Vet Teams and Pilots, who today, as they do every day, will be facing the harsh realities of the ivory trade on the front lines, as they patrol in Kenya in their mission to keep elephants alive.
More information on the Times Square Ivory Crush can be found at: www.fws.gov/ivorycrush
Find out more about the work of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust at: www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org