The US Fish and Wildlife Service put on a regrettable show in Times Square this week. Agents crushed six tons of confiscated ivory, the entirety of the government's stockpile, they said:
Why? Emotionally moving public relations:
Crushing our ivory sends a message to ivory traffickers and their customers that the United States will not tolerate this illegal trade. This crush will also educate consumers, in the United States and around the world, and urge them not to buy products made with ivory that could be contributing to the poaching crisis.
Dear government, please stop destroying artifacts
It is highly unlikely that traffickers of illegal products, goods, and services are emotionally swayed by the destruction of transactions for which they received payment. It is also highly unlikely these traffickers are paying attention to the schedule of live events in Times Square. Can destroying the relicts of animal abuse "educate consumers"? Maybe, but education isn't enough to end the ivory trade — the primary goal of the project, as stated by the Fish and Wildlife Service itself:
...the only way to truly stop this slaughter is by ending consumer demand for ivory.
Destroying something doesn't change whether people desire it
There are economic considerations that should have influenced the agency or, if not it, the long list of environmental groups that supported its decision:
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is grateful to the following organizing partners in the Ivory Crush at Times Square: Wildlife Conservation Society, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, New York State Senator Brad Hoylman, and Powerscreen; and to our other partners in the Crush and the effort to end wildlife trafficking: African Wildlife Foundation, The Humane Society of the United States, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Natural Resources Defense Council, and World Wildlife Fund.
We should not destroy artifacts because they are the result of morally reprehensible actions. Everyone should love and protect and support the future of living, safe elephants. Do not buy ivory. Do not sell ivory. Ending the trade of ivory is extremely important. In addition, we also need these groups to think more thoroughly about the economic implications of their actions. These things are not mutually exclusive, they are just a little more difficult. But that's why many supporters of environmental sustainability pay people at NGOs to help us think through these things critically, without being swayed by short-term interests.
In the short term, the destruction of ivory only incentivizes ivory consumers to make sure these groups don't access their privately owned ivory. It does little to impact their interests or access of ivory available on the market today.
In the long term, ivory crushing lowers the total supply of ivory in the world. This is a far-off possibility, but the more ivory we destroy, the lower the supply will be in the future. If enough of it is destroyed, you can bet it will only make ivory more rare, raising prices. And we know that people, for egotistical reasons, like to have rare things.
Finally, if elephants do become extinct — which is entirely possible — the US government and supportive environmental groups will be responsible for the destruction of countless biological artifacts, which are already off the market and could be given over to researchers. That sounds like an anti-scientific approach to anything.
I choose elephants and keeping existing ivory in safekeeping. Let's keep all the artifacts we can, cherishing them for future generations to see and study. But you don't have to agree. Watch this video, which includes a plea to crush ivory from actress Kristen Davis (of Sex and the City fame), and decide for yourself if we have to destroy confiscated ivory in order to save elephants.