Today near Denver, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will do something it says it has never done before: destroy six tons of ivory to highlight a booming illegal trade contributing to the slaughter of tens of thousands of elephants every year.
"We're trying to tell organized syndicates and cartels who are now involved in the illegal ivory trade that we're going to do whatever we can to take the value out of ivory and do whatever we can to put them in jail," said Edward Grace, deputy chief with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement.
Elephant poaching is at its highest level in decades, killing an estimated 30,000 animals every year, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The WWF says the illegal ivory trade is valued between $7.8 billion and $10 billion every year.
"Blood ivory" may even be fueling terrorist activity. In a September report, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said growing demand along with a limited supply is making ivory increasingly lucrative.
"Criminal elements of all kinds, including some terrorist entities and rogue security personnel, often in collusion with government officials in source countries are involved in poaching and movement of ivory and rhino horn across east, central, and southern Africa," the report said.
Since a global ban was enacted in 1989, ivory seized by U.S. authorities has been piling up at a federal warehouse called the National Wildlife Property Repository near Commerce City, Colo. On Wednesday, federal officials and wildlife agents showed off a massive collection of elephant tusks, carvings and jewelry. Some of the tusks are small, a sign that poachers are killing both adult elephants and their babies.
"That tells you that poachers are indiscriminate," Crawford Allan told ABC News.
"Poachers don't care whether it's a young or old animal," said Allan, who monitors illegal animal trading for the World Wildlife Fund. "They are wiping out entire families."
This afternoon officials will move the ivory stockpile outside to a giant blue industrial rock crusher, where it will be pulverized into millions of worthless pieces. Officials say the crushed ivory will likely be donated to a museum as part of a future exhibit.
The National Wildlife Property Repository is a veritable chamber of animal horrors, containing row after row of illegal products seized during criminal investigations, at border crossings and ports of entry. Shelves are lined with purses made from alligators, countless bear and tiger pelts (even a stuffed tiger embryo) and furniture made from turtle shells.
The Unites States and Asia are largely driving the demand in ivory, experts and federal officials say. China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are a few of the worst ivory-trade offenders, according to the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species.
Critics argue the "ivory crush"-like earlier events in Gabon, Kenya and the Philippines- will do little to stem the illegal ivory trade. Michael 't Sas-Rolfes, a conservation economist with the Property and Environmental Research Center, warns today's crush could have unintended consequences.
"The ill-conceived [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] gesture could create the perception that ivory is an increasingly scarce commodity on illegal markets, leading to higher prices and further poaching," he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service disagrees.
"This ivory would never be made available to the market," the agency said in a statement. "Its destruction has no impact on the overall supply and does not create any incentive for poaching. By demonstrating our commitment to combat poaching and illegal trade, and to arrest and prosecute people who engage in these activities, we are providing a strong disincentive to poachers and wildlife traffickers."
In July, President Obama signed an executive order forming a cabinet-level task force to combat the illegal wildlife trade, pledging $10 million to tackle poaching in Africa.
"We're sending a strong message out both to people who buy and trade illegal ivory to say 'we aren't going to tolerate this anymore'," Allan said.