A Mammoth Step in the Pursuit of Illicit Ivory Sales


Jim Dwyer, New York Times

Date Published

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The windows of the gallery and the floors of its aisles are lined with animals, in herds and singly. Lions. Giraffes. Monkeys. And elephants, bulls, cows and calves. Most were cast from poured metal.

About two years ago, though, a couple browsing the shop, Landmark Gallery on West 58th Street, spotted netsuke, tiny carved statues of a cartoonish bunny and dog, and of a woman embracing a gigantic nose.

These, the store said, were hewed from the ivory tusks of mammoths, extinct mammals frozen by the tens of millions in Siberian permafrost.

In a world of nonstop disasters, this shopping expedition would represent one success in protecting living creatures with personalities and social qualities as big as their bodies.

The couple doing the shopping were investigators from the Department of Environmental Conservation, who suspected — correctly — that Landmark was actually selling elephant ivory under the guise of mammoth.

Outside of Asia, New York City has been one of the leading markets in the world for ivory, although by that day in the spring of 2015, the sale of ivory had been banned under a state law that took effect the year before. (Antique musical instruments containing a small quantity of ivory can still be sold.)

Ivory comes from the elephant tusk, an incisor tooth that can grow to more than 10 feet. The quickest way to get it is to kill the elephant, hack the tusk from its head and put the ivory into the hands of middlemen who deliver it as a raw material for carvers. Thus, the largest land creatures on earth, which are thought by some to mourn the deaths of other elephants, were being killed by the tens of thousands every year for whatever human vanities could be satisfied by trinkets and baubles. All that remained of a 13,000-pound mammal would be a few delicate ounces of ivory, displayed under glass in the windows of Midtown Manhattan.

The purpose of the ban was to take the economic incentives out of the frenzy of slaughter that has driven African elephants toward extinction.

The law gave dealers two years to sell their mammoth ivory. Some conservationists believe that satiating the market’s appetite for ivory with extinct creatures would protect living ones.

To the untrained eye, there is little to distinguish elephant ivory from mammoth, but scientists at the American Museum of Natural History were able to determine that Landmark’s so-called mammoth ivory was from elephants.

The company that owns Landmark Gallery pleaded guilty this month to felony charges made stiffer under the 2014 law. It was the first time the new law was applied. The company’s owners, two brothers named Behrooz Torkian and Hersel Torkian, were not charged but the case remains under investigation by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

A visitor to the gallery last week was told by a salesman that neither Torkian was available.

Asked if any ivory was for sale, the employee replied, “We don’t sell ivory.”

That was not always true.

“In the past, yes,” he said.

The international horror over the killing of elephants led to ivory bans in the United States and China. The wholesale price in China is now less than half what it was three years ago, the wildlife organization Save the Elephants reported this week.

A snap survey done last year found ivory to be much scarcer in New York and in other major American cities than it had been a decade ago, according to a report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Traffic, which monitors wildlife trade. Still, “New York remains, unfortunately, a robust market for ivory,” Basil Seggos, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said.

That’s what Wendy Hapgood, an elephant conservationist, found when she took a journalism class last year at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. She wrote a detailed report on ivory in the tourist shops of Midtown Manhattan. Along the way, she met the state environmental investigators.

So among the penalties paid by Landmark — $150,000 in sales tax, the forfeiture of ivory valued at $250,000 — was one that seemed to be worth more than just money.

For its crimes, Landmark also had to pay $50,000 to Ms. Hapgood’s group, the Wild Tomorrow Fund. The state says it will help pay for gear and training for rangers fighting elephant and rhinoceros poachers in southern Africa. “Fifty thousand dollars!” Ms. Hapgood said. “That goes a long way on the ground there.”