ASHLAND — A large cache of elephant tusks accumulated over decades of investigations at the U.S. National Wildlife Forensics Laboratory will be ground into worthlessness next month as part of a worldwide effort to curb elephant poaching.
Seventy-eight tusks and piles of carved ivory will be included in nearly 6 tons of ivory seized in poaching and smuggling investigations worldwide that will be destroyed by rock crushers beginning Oct. 8 at a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facility outside of Denver.
The effort is a way of getting rid of the stored items as well as ensuring they do not return to the illegal ivory trade while serving as a showcase for how wildlife trafficking harms species such as elephants.
"That's the whole idea of destroying the stuff — to show we're not corrupt," laboratory Director Ken Goddard says.
The only ivory items remaining at the Ashland lab are three tusks and one end piece that lab scientists received in 2008 after the tusks spent years in metal crates crisscrossing the globe before smugglers' efforts to sneak them into Laos were thwarted.
The pieces will remain for research purposes, including DNA extraction work at the lab, which until recently was the only wildlife forensics lab in the world. A lab has since begun investigating cases in Kenya, Goddard says.
Also remaining at the Ashland lab are a few pieces of carved ivory used in displays, he says.
The rest of the ivory was all shipped to Colorado earlier this month.
The illegal wildlife trade is a $19 billion per year enterprise, with elephant ivory, rhinoceros horns and other items fetching up to $100,000 apiece, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
The stockpiled ivory in the United States all stems from adjudicated smuggling and poaching cases, Goddard says. It has remained at places such as the forensics lab and the repository, where they have run the risk of theft because of the sheer value of ivory that is considered a status symbol in many countries.
"It's an interesting issue," Goddard says. "I can't imagine who else would be stockpiling elephant ivory."
The tusks that remain in the lab's locked storage facility themselves tell a story of elephant poaching and the underground ivory trade.
Originally shipped from Lusaka, Zambia, they were part of a collection of tusks in four metal trunks that spent nearly three years traveling a variety of global shipping routes while a string of faceless importers tried to sneak them into Laos.
Interpol agents in 2007 seized the trunks in Singapore. X-rays there suggested one contained ivory tusks, likely from poached African elephants.
That trunk was sent to Ashland, where in 2008 it was opened in the forensics lab's special isolation room in case the trunks contained anthrax or other potential contaminants. Beneath blood-soaked nylon bags were 18 tusks, with some even sporting cracks and gashes from bullets.
The lower ends of the tusks had a pinkish tint, most common among forest elephants. And some appeared to match.
Two pairs were longer and thicker, suggesting they were from elephants at least 20 years old. Others were smaller, as if from youngsters.
Scientists at the time pointed to the light coloration on the tusks' tops, showing that the animals were killed and their jaws were cut out and left to decay to make their crude processing easier. Dirt in the nerve cavities suggested they were buried.
Gunpowder residue found on some of the tusks suggested they were shot at very close range.
Cuts on the upper end show the bone was hacked away, probably with a machete or hatchet, to expose the ivory that would have been still growing inside the elephants' mouths at the times of their deaths.
They likely were a family of elephants that were shot and their tusks removed, buried and eventually dug up and smuggled out of Africa, Goddard says.
One of the tusks has a bluish hue to it, the result of extensive fingerprint analysis that turned up several good prints with no known matches, Goddard says.
The case was never solved, he says.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at email@example.com.