An art store owner surrendered Tuesday on charges he smuggled one ton of banned African elephant ivory into the United States.
Victor Gordon is accused of getting his ivory from west and central Africa, where conservationists consider the ivory trade a major threat to the dwindling African elephant population. He paid an unnamed co-conspirator to buy and carve the ivory, and then had them stain it to appear to be decades old to get around an international treaty, prosecutors said.
U.S. officials called the amount of ivory seized in the case staggering, but could not immediately estimate how many elephants allegedly died at Gordon's hands.
"It's safe to say dozens of elephants sit before you," Edward Grace, deputy chief of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said at a news conference Tuesday in Philadelphia, where officials displayed a cache of intricately carved tusks seized from Gordon and his customers.
Gordon, 68, had the tusks smuggled through New York, where the case is being prosecuted, authorities said. He appeared in federal court in Brooklyn with his lawyer Tuesday morning, and was released on $1 million bond.
The lawyer, Daniel-Paul Alva, said his client pleaded not guilty. He said Gordon is a legitimate collector and dealer of ivory tusks who has documentation to show he was collecting them in the hopes of leaving them to a museum and who had no knowledge that any of them came from illegal poaching. A phone at the downtown Philadelphia store, Victor Gordon Enterprises, appeared to be disconnected.
Ivory over 100 years old can be imported as an antique. Newer ivory has been banned since the 1980s under an international conservation treaty.
Nonetheless, demand for the ivory has exploded with the economic growth of Asia, where ivory figures are treasured. The elephant population has fallen sharply in the past 20 to 30 years, said Richard Ruggiero, a chief conservationist with the wildlife service.
"The market goes up, so the killing goes up," he said.
Poachers first seek out the largest males in the group, then mid-size males, then the largest females, typically the matriarchs. With their deaths, the social structure of the group disintegrates, he said.
Some of the tusks displayed Tuesday appeared to come from a 30- to 50-year-old bull elephant that would have weighed five tons, officials said.
"It's like displaced persons from a war," Ruggiero said. "We're seeing the last battle for the survival of the forest elephant in central Africa right now."
Gordon's indictment capped a five-year investigation begun after agents intercepted ivory being smuggled through John F. Kennedy International Airport. More than a half-dozen people were convicted as they worked their way up to get Gordon, officials said.
The ivory was smuggled from or through Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, officials said.
While Ruggiero cited Gabon as an example of a country with progressive leadership to fight elephant poaching, other countries lack the resources or will to do so.
"Elephants, they know what's going on. They know they're being hunted," Ruggiero said. "Their entire ability to use their habitat and be social animals is greatly compromised, because they're under so much pressure."