France Takes A Stand, Crushing Ivory Beneath The Eiffel Tower

France became the first European country this week to join a worldwide effort to destroy ivory. The goal is to send a warning to ivory traffickers and to anyone who might not consider buying it a serious crime.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR NEW. I'm Rachel Martin.

This past week, France became the first European country to destroy illegal ivory in a high profile public demonstration. It did so underneath the Eiffel Tower as part of a global effort to call attention to the illicit ivory trade. Officials say the trade not only wipes out the world's population of elephants, it also funds terrorism.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has the story.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: In the shadow of one of the world's most iconic monuments, a chain of customs and police officers passes along elephant tusks, one by one, and lays them on a conveyor belt that feeds them into a giant crushing machine. A customs agent lets me briefly hold one of the ivory tusks.

Oh, my God. It's so heavy. Oh, wow.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Sixteen pounds - huit kilos.

The largest tusk on the pile weighs around 80 pounds, but not for long. It looks like rocks on a beach. The ivory is ground down into rocks. And then it goes to the second process and its ground down even further into what looks like sand coming out the end of this machine.

PHILIPPE MARTIN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Speaking at the event, French Environment Minister Philippe Martin says destroying the ivory sends the strongest message to poachers and traffickers. Even though there has been a global ban on trading in ivory since 1989, elephants and rhinoceroses are still being slaughtered for their tusks, says Philippe Germa, with the World Wildlife Fund.

PHILIPPE GERMA: In the world, we have about 500,000 elephants alive. And every year, it's about 25,000 that are being killed, only for money.

BEARDSLEY: Some animal rights groups say an elephant is killed every 15 minutes. The illegal ivory trade doesn't just destroy elephants; officials here say it's also the fourth-largest source of funding for terrorism. The radical Somalian Islamist group al-Shabab, which killed at least 67 people in a Kenyan shopping mall last September, is said to get nearly half its funding from the illegal ivory trade.

Several African ambassadors joined in to watch the destruction of the more than 700 tusks and thousands of carved statues, worth more than a million dollars. Begum Taj is the Tanzanian ambassador to France. She says it sends the right signal to poachers.

AMBASSADOR BEGUM TAJ: Yes, it is very important because it gives a lesson that you can't go away with it. It will be destroyed. Or you will be caught or you will be taken to justice. So it is important for the public to see.

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BEARDSLEY: Most of the ivory here today was seized at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport, the main entry point for ivory into Europe. But China is the world's main customer. Customs officer Patrice Bonnet says being caught with ivory is just as serious as being caught with drugs.

PATRICE BONNET: (Through Translator) Carrying ivory is absolutely forbidden. If you have it, you risk huge fines. And the fines are getting steeper and the punishment tougher as the number of elephants diminishes.

BEARDSLEY: China, the U.S., and several African countries also recently destroyed stockpiles of ivory. Hong Kong says it will incinerate 28 tons in the coming year.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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