One Ton of Illegal Ivory Seized in New York

PHOTO: More than 70 boxes of endangered, illegal ivory goods seized by the Manhattan district attorney were put on display, July 12, 2012.

Two defendants pleaded guilty in Manhattan Thursday to selling and offering for sale a ton of ivory items worth more than $2 million harvested from endangered and threatened elephants , one of the largest seizures in New York history and a sign that the trade in endangered animals still thrives despite the best efforts of conservationists and law enforcement.

"Poachers should not have a market in Manhattan," said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance at a press conference at which he displayed more than 70 boxes holding Buddhas, bracelets and decorated elephant tusks, a fraction of the ton of illegal ivory seized by his office after a year-long investigation. "It is unacceptable that tusks from elephants wind up being sold as mass-produced jewelry and unremarkable decorative items in this city."

"The world's elephants are not a ready supply of ivory for those who want to own and sell it," added Neil Mendelsohn, acting special agent in charge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "They are national treasures to be protected."

Mukesh Gupta, 67, owner of Raja Jewels, and Johnson Jung-Chien Lu, 56, owner of New York Jewelry Mart Corp., were charged with illegal commercialization of wildlife. Each was required to forfeit their ivory items and pay a $45,000 fine.

The seizure is a victory in a battle that has been waged since the 1989 ban on the sale and distribution of ivory within the United States. Despite the ban ivory traffic remains big business, with 24 tons of contraband seized worldwide in 2011 alone, making it the worst year on record for elephant death since the ban went into effect.

Wildlife groups have pushed for greater protections on African and Asian elephants, whose tusks have been harvested for centuries, but for poachers the massive, endangered beasts remain a source of riches, with most sales heading east to Japan and increasingly affluent China.

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Between 2002 and 2006 it was estimated that four out of every 10 dead elephants was killed by a poacher. That number has now doubled -- eight out of 10 dead elephants are now believed to be the victims of poachers, who have become increasingly brazen despite international efforts to stem the trade.

The ivory is used in jewelry, art, and even in musical instruments, with piano keys made from the tusks of the endangered animals lending grim meaning to the saying, "tickle the ivories."

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