In a place full of video billboards that span several stories, grown adults dressed as unlicensed superheroes, and constant construction, a rock crusher didn't look terribly out of place, even if a huge array of ivory sculptures and trinkets and banners warning about elephant poaching sort of did. In spite of the stage, celebrities and politicians, the rock crusher, which was going to turn all that ivory to dust, was the star of the US Ivory Crush at Times Square.
As demonstrated by late night talk show hosts since time immemorial, "Person-On-The-Street" interviews in Times Square are a chance to blindside people so clueless that they didn't know to avoid Times Square. This morning, however, as the Wildlife Conservation Society was preparing to crush over a ton of seized, illegal ivory, I could only find the faithful and the informed.
"It's important we destroy the existing stock of ivory," Helen White told me. She had come out to give her support in response to an email from the WCS, and we were talking over a police barricade. "As long as there's demand, there will be people poaching."
Like many I spoke with, White has not but hopes one day to see an elephant in the wild, something that won't be possible in as few as five years if elephants continue to be poached at a rate of over 30,000 every year, 96 every day, and one elephant every 15 minutes, as activists reiterated through the course of the crush.
The ivory, but for the "SEIZED" tags, looked almost like it was on display. There were no piano keys or billiard balls in the lot; it was all African or Asian at least in theme. Some were tusks formed into instruments, some were left tusk-shaped, but most were statues. I don't know how many were folk or local art, or how many were made to sell to post-colonial orientalist collectors. For whatever it was worth, it had been seized here, from Boston's airport, from an art store in Philadelphia, from New York City's jewelry district and, apparently, from a park in Los Angeles:
In spite of myself, I couldn't help but find some of the pieces, and the craftsmanship that went into them, beautiful. Ivory has been a valuable commodity since ancient times, but as I stood there, under a giant video screen that alternated between advertising for Aladdin and The Lion King, it felt like ivory, like orientalism, was an idea whose time had come and was now—or soon should be—gone.
The US is still the second largest ivory market in the world, but the WCS Director for the Asia Program, Joe Walston, told me that has reached its highest level in decades due to increased demand from Asia. Since legal trade of old ivory creates a fig leaf for new, illegal poached ivory, the Chinese government announced plans to eventually ban the trade of ivory outright.
As elephants are extremely charismatic creatures, the International Fund for Animal Welfare reports that almost 80 percent of Americans support prohibiting ivory sales in the US. New York State already banned the sale of most ivory last year. Katie Lee, a Food Network star turned supporter of 96 Elephants, the WCS campaign to end African elephant poaching, told me that their goal is go to state by state, setting up similar bans.
It's an easy cause for American politicians to get behind, and a pair of US representatives from New York, a state senator, and Sally Jewell, secretary of the Department of the Interior took turns at the podium, each with a list of people to thank, and reasons they're against ivory, including how poaching funds terrorism and drug trafficking.
"I'll keep this quick because we've got ivory to crush and elephants to save," said US Representative Steve Israel said. "But I want to thank Kristen Davis, whom you might remember as Charlotte on the show 'Sex and the City,' and who is here to give her support."
Being a pretty charismatic guy, Israel went ahead and added, "I also want to thank Kristen because she has a great love for Jewish men, and it gives me hope."
One notion that kept surfacing was the idea that all of the ivory, no matter the artistry applied, was now worthless. "And the reason it's worthless," said Joseph Martens, commissioner for New York State's department of environmental conservation, "is because it's not on an elephant."
It's an interesting wrinkle in the practice of banning something—you can't just cut off the source. You have to devalue the stock down the line.
"We want to say that ivory is shameful and you shouldn't want it," Katie Lee told me. "The only place ivory belongs is on an elephant."
After the speakers, people moved into position. It was at last time for the main event. The Dr.-Seussian rock crusher started up, and the politicians steeled their faces into a mix of solemn but a little triumphant and queued for a chance to put something made of ivory on the conveyor belt. The rock crusher's diesel motors joined the din of a Times Square that was now fully awake. One by one, tusks and sculptures made their way up and into the chipper. It rattled, and flung occasional chips of ivory out over the crowd.
"The United States staged this event at its most famous address where messages speak their loudest—two stories high and in lights," WSC president and CEO Cristian Samper said in a statement. "And today's message is this: We plan to crush the ivory trade and crush the profits of the traffickers."
It's obviously a global issue, so who knows what kind of impact one event, in a state where ivory is already banned, can have.
As I walked back to the train, extremely friendly people who were giving out smoothies stopped me to give me one, and I asked them what they thought of the event.
"Oh yeah, the ivory crush?" one friendly person said. "We've been hearing it all morning. Kirsten Dunst is there!"
The celebrity identity might not be clear, but one hopes the message is.