By Environment Correspondent Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will destroy its six-ton stockpile of elephant ivory as a way to combat wildlife trafficking, an international fight that often has law enforcement outgunned by well-financed crime syndicates, White House panelists said on Monday.
The ivory - raw and carved whole tusks and smaller items seized by or abandoned to U.S. agents over the last 25 years - will be crushed as part of a push to publicize the illegal trade that threatens wild elephants, rhinoceros, tigers, great apes and other iconic species, said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
"This was shocking to me: wildlife trafficking has doubled since 2007, and it's now estimated to be the fourth largest transnational crime in the world," Jewell told a White House forum.
Fueled by increased global demand, especially in Asia, prices for items made from some endangered species have soared. Rhinoceros horn is now worth twice its weight in gold, said Jewell, adding that the United States is also one of the world's biggest customers for illegally traded wildlife goods.
"This crisis is not like anything that we have dealt with," Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a telephone interview before the meeting. "It's syndicated, it's well-organized, it's well-funded - and it needed a whole government approach."
TECHNOLOGY TO CATCH POACHERS
That approach was specified in an executive order issued by President Barack Obama on July 1 (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/07/01/executive-order-combating-wildlife-trafficking ), asking U.S. agencies including Treasury, Defense, Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Council to work together to tackle the issue.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made illegal wildlife trafficking a priority during her tenure as the top U.S. diplomat, gave the matter a high profile by speaking at the White House gathering, along with her daughter Chelsea Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation.
One facet of the fight against illegal trafficking is to work with private industry to give law enforcement an edge over well-financed poachers and those who pay them, said Carter Roberts, president of conservation group World Wildlife Fund.
"We are being outgunned right now by these criminal syndicates," Roberts said at the forum. "They have night vision goggles, they have helicopters, they lots of sophisticated arms. One of the keys tools at our disposal is going to be technology and inventing new ways to catch the bad guys before it's too late."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to crush and destroy the U.S. stockpile of ivory on October 8. The ivory is stored in a secure repository near Denver, the Interior Department said in a statement.
The department did not estimate the value of the ivory. However, one ton of ivory has been valued at $2 million in recent years when smugglers have been caught, so the total value of the U.S. stockpile could be about $12 million.
(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko; Editing by Ros Krasny and Eric Walsh)