These ivory carvings are one-of-a-kind. Today, they were destroyed, and not a moment too soon.
The message was loud and clear.
On a cool Friday morning in New York City's Times Square, I took a grainy, poorly composed photo of some of the most beautiful, tacky, and bizarre ivory carvings I've ever seen.
Just a few hours later, every single one of them was crushed into little tiny bits by this machine.
Never to be seen again.
At 8 a.m., the pre-pulverized statues were on display in all their weirdness.
Officer Neil Mendelsohn of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and his colleagues worked through the night arranging and posing hundreds of the illegal trinkets — all so they could be smashed into oblivion early the next morning.
"I actually built that structure in my garage," he told me. "I'm functioning on no sleep."
Crushing a bunch of ivory in one of the busiest intersections in the world might seem like a random thing to do on a Friday.
But it actually makes a (literal) ton of sense. Because poaching is no joke.
According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, 96 elephants are killed in Africa every day, mainly for their tusks. 100,000 elephants were poached between 2011 and 2014 alone.
The "Ivory Crush" is a symbolic gesture. It won't make a big dent in the global ivory supply, and on its own, it won't stop poaching. But it's not designed to do either of those things.
The Ivory Crush is designed to send a message.
"When one country crushes ivory, another does. When one country says they're going to tighten their regulations, another does."
— Leigh Henry, senior policy advisor at the World Wildlife Fund
"China just announced they have the intention to close their domestic ivory market ... and they called out the U.S. to do the same," she told me. "I think some of it's competitive, It's just kind of human nature," Henry continued, "You don't want to be the first to give something up or the first to take the step. It's much easier to follow others."
According to World Wildlife Fund officials, the global market for ivory is vast and complex, and motivations for buying ivory items vary greatly. For some, it's a status symbol. For others, owning a piece of ivory is a cultural signifier — a sign that you've made it. But perhaps most tragically, many people who buy ivory items don't fully understand what they're purchasing.
"Behind every piece of ivory is a dead elephant," Henry explained. "We find that a lot of people don't actually make that connection when they walk into a store to buy a piece of ivory. They don't understand that elephants have to be killed for that ivory."
Once the ivory is confiscated, it's off the market for good, and international law prevents it from ever being sold again. Destroying it does nothing to drive up the price, but ensures that if it somehow falls into the wrong hands, it's worthless.
Which is nice news for elephants. And elephants could really use some good news.
OK. I got it. You got it. This whole #IvoryCrush thing is good for the earth and good for elephants and happy and feely — all that jazz. Let's see some ivory get freaking pulverized.
You got it.
"This machine is primarily for contractors doing recycling, demo, sand, and gravel rock," explained Tyler Trowbridge, territory manager for Powerscreen USA, the company that manufactures and operates the smashing machine.
"Stuff goes into what's called the hopper here..."
"...comes into the impact chamber — there's a big boulder in there spinning at 1800 rpm, and it's throwing the material against a steel apron that starts breaking the material..."
"...and then it spits it out."
"Normally it's [used to crush] boring recycled roads, recycled concrete, or rock," Trowbridge explained. "This isn't your typical application for us."
The U.S. government doesn't have a plan for what to do with all the crushed ivory yet.
It will remain in secure storage until they come up with something. But in the meantime, creative minds are working on ideas.
"Personally, I think it'd be really neat if they took all the pieces of ivory and made a statue of an elephant out of them," said Stephen Sautner, Executive Director of Communications for the Wildlife Conservation Society. "To represent all the elephants that have been killed."
Like this non-ivory elephant statue that I imagine it would look like:
I'd pay at least as much money as I would not pay for an ivory trinket to see that.