ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — In an effort to shutter the U.S. as a modern elephant graveyard, New York regulators are now demanding more proof that intricately carved artwork and fine white jewelry abide by state law.
In New York, it is illegal to sell ivory from elephants killed after 1978. The state is now requiring retailers and wholesalers licensed to sell older ivory to show detailed provenance of all their pieces.
"The laws have been the same in New York since the late '70s. What's changed is because of the plight of the elephant, our department has changed posture as far as what proof you need to show that you owned this prior to it being listed back in the '70s," said Maj. Scott Florence, chief state environmental crimes investigator.
Wildlife groups say African poachers, including militias and armed gangs, accelerated the lucrative slaughter to about 30,000 elephants last year.
"It's up hugely," said Liz Bennett of the Wildlife Conservation Society. She noted the recent seizure in Malaysia of about 1,500 tusks.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare said authorities worldwide confiscated about 27 tons of ivory in 2011, estimating 25,000 to 50,000 elephants were killed that year.
Investigators over the past two years have confiscated two tons of ivory that passed through New York City, considered a primary black market supporting the slaughter of the world's largest land mammals.
New York requires ivory dealers to be licensed, although officials acknowledge there are untold numbers of unsanctioned sellers.
About 110 retailers and wholesalers were previously licensed, but the number is down to about 60 under the new, tighter provisions. More than a dozen applications were rejected, some outright and some for partial inventories, said wildlife biologist Joseph Therrien of the Department of Environmental Conservation's special licensing unit. Other dealers' license applications are pending.
"We had to do it across the board: a new applicant, anybody renewing a license, or anybody who's even amending," he said.
In a recent seizure, the DEC found thousands of smooth white bracelets with silver clasps, the ivory identifiable by its faint Shrager lines. A single bracelet was tagged at $270 wholesale, $540 retail. The haul included nearly a ton of mass-produced statues and jewelry, with estimated value above $2 million. Officials said it is probably headed to a federal repository in Colorado.
The state investigation in New York City's diamond district began with a tip from an off-duty federal inspector who saw ivory that looked new at New York Jewelry Mart Corp. Pristine white pieces are often a giveaway; older ivory tends to discolor.
DEC Lt. John Fitzpatrick said undercover investigators bought enough to establish a felony state offense and identified the wholesaler as Raja Jewels Inc., which was selling to other jewelers by appointment. There were 1970s invoices for some ivory, but none for the bracelets that apparently came from India, and neither company had a state ivory sales permit.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance obtained guilty pleas from both sellers this summer to state felony charges of illegal commercialization of wildlife. They gave up the ivory and agreed to pay almost $50,000 altogether to the Wildlife Conservation Society. DEC's focus is in-state sales, with some other investigations pending, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service focuses on smuggling and interstate cases and had other major New York City prosecutions in 2010.
Attorney David Holland, representing Raja owner Mukesh Gupta, said New York restricts post-1978 sales, while federal smuggling enforcement and an international treaty impose a 1989 cutoff.
"There is a general state of confusion for individuals who have contemplated purchasing or selling ivory as they are unaware that the Endangered Species Act and New York state law are the controlling principles and not the international treaties related to the ban of the sale of ivory worldwide, which came later," he said.
In September, art dealer Victor Gordon of Philadelphia pleaded guilty to felony smuggling in Brooklyn federal court and gave up a ton of ivory, including intricately carved whole tusks. Investigators said it was deliberately stained to make it appear antique. Gordon agreed to pay $150,000. Free on $1 million bond, he could face up to 20 years in prison, though that's considered unlikely. Gordon's attorney Daniel-Paul Alva declined to comment with his client facing sentencing in April.
Hundreds of tusks and carvings were seized in Philadelphia, with others confiscated in Bryn Mawr and Caversville, Pa.; Brooklyn and Valley Stream, N.Y.; Lawrence, Kan.; Columbia, Mo.; Hillsborough, Calif.; and Miami. Several pieces were taken from buyers. The case was prosecuted in New York because much of the ivory came through Kennedy Airport in Queens.
"We try to go after the larger organizations commercializing or doing most of the damage to the species," said Ed Grace, deputy chief of law enforcement for the wildlife service.
He said it would be difficult to estimate the size of the U.S. market for ivory, probably second only to China, and the New York-New Jersey area seems to be the epicenter.