New York - More than a tonne of ivory was crushed before crowds in New York's Times Square in a dramatic move by the US government to show it will not tolerate the illegal ivory trade.
The carved ivory, some of it still in the form of an elephant's tusk, was on display on a table in Times Square. Officials held the items up piece by piece, then placed them on a conveyer belt that fed into an enormous mechanical crusher, where they were pulverised into dust.
"Today's ivory crush serves as a stark reminder to the rest of the world that the United States will not tolerate wildlife crimes, especially against iconic and endangered animals," said US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell at the event last Friday.
The ivory was confiscated from dealers and retailers in New York City and Philadelphia.
US officials say that between 2011 and last year, the poaching of African elephants reached the highest level recorded. In just three years, around 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory.
"This is an illegal product and we feel that burning it or destroying it gets it out of commercial use and, therefore, there's less of a chance for it to find its way into the marketplace," said Wildlife Conservation Society spokesman John Calvelli. "It makes it really clear that it will never be used again."
The event was coordinated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the New York state department of environmental conservation, together with a coalition of wildlife conservation groups.
Ms Jewell said there was a growing demand for ivory, with international organised crime networks seeing it as a low-risk, high-profit market. Elephant tusks are highly prized, particularly in Asia, where they are carved into ivory statuettes and jewellery.
According to the USFWS, the slaughter outstrips the rate at which the species can reproduce. Experts have warned that there could be as little as five years left to save elephants from extinction in the wild, the Guardian reported.
"While we're at this event, about six more elephants will die," said Ms Jewell. "Maybe more, because they're now going after the babies."
An estimated 470,000 wild elephants remain in Africa, according to a count by the NGO Elephants Without Borders, down from several million a century ago.
According to a recent study, the situation is particularly alarming in Tanzania, which has seen a "catastrophic decline" in the elephant population, from 109,051 in 2009 to 43,330 in 2014, said leading wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic this month.
According to another recent study, demand means that a poacher can earn US$3,000 (S$4,010) per pair of elephant tusks, more than many annual salaries in Africa.
The US is the world's second biggest market for ivory, after China, and still permits the trade of ivory acquired before a global ban came into effect in 1989.
But fresh ivory is often indistinguishable from antique, and the antique market is often used as a cover for illegal sales, said the Guardian report.
For the Obama administration, curtailing wildlife trafficking is not just about conservation. The trade - involving not just elephants but also tigers and rhinoceroses - earns an estimated US$19 billion each year for terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab, the report added.