Sometimes the best way to hide is in plain sight.
Criminals, outlaws and insurgents have long understood the power of blending in. It's the same tactic used by traffickers around the world who trade in ivory from elephants slaughtered by the thousands.
For decades, they've used the legal ivory trade - here in the United States and globally - to launder their blood ivory, fueling unimaginable carnage in Africa.
They've used unscrupulous and sometimes unwitting dealers to sell poached ivory, and relied on a trusting and unquestioning public to believe what they are buying is legal. Forging paperwork, cosmetically "aging" ivory to make it appear antique, and bribing officials to allow it to slip into the marketplace unchallenged. The fog that results from the ability to sell ivory legally has obscured the illegal trade and routinely hindered and complicated efforts by our law enforcement agents to crack down on ivory trafficking.
That stops now.
Today, we're taking action to tighten controls on ivory in the United States, eliminating domestic commercial trade in African elephant ivory and products containing it, with very few exceptions.
It's a great step forward strongly supported by the public and conservation community that will help protect wild elephants now in danger of vanishing from Africa in our lifetime.
Desire to own ivory, whether as a status symbol, jewelry, gift, or even an investment, is decimating elephant populations.- In one recent three-year period, more than 100,000 African elephants were poached for their ivory.
The slaughter is orchestrated by increasingly sophisticated criminal organizations and insurgent groups that, over the past decade, have murdered hundreds of game wardens and other local leaders - threatening security and stability in an enormous swath of Africa.
Our ongoing investigations show that many seemingly legitimate businesses engage in illegal ivory trade. For example, Service Special Agents and state officers seized more than $2 million worth of illegal elephant ivory from two New York City retail stores in 2012. And we've made arrests in many other U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, Miami and Los Angeles.
These arrests - which represent only the tip of the tusk when it comes to ivory trafficking - make it clear that the United States is not an innocent bystander--our citizens, our infrastructure and our commerce are intimately involved.
In 2013 and again last year in New York's Times Square, we crushed the United States' stockpile of seized illegal ivory to draw global attention to the elephants' plight - and to remind Americans that our nation remains one of the world's largest markets for ivory - both legal and illegal.
Given the unparalleled and escalating threats to African elephants, a near-complete ban on commercial trade in elephant ivory is the best way to ensure U.S. domestic markets do not contribute to the decline of this species in the wild.
These changes will make it easier for us to arrest and prosecute criminals who seek to profit from the pain and suffering of elephants and local communities in Africa.
We recognize, however, that legitimate concerns have been raised by professional musicians, antique dealers and collectors, and museum curators, among others. They noted that a sweeping ban could hamper their ability to travel with, and trade in items that contain ivory but don't contribute to the current crisis, such as antiques, musical instruments or firearms.
We listened carefully to those concerns and developed a rule that allows commonsense exceptions for trade in antique ivory items that meet very specific criteria, and certain manufactured items such as musical instruments, furniture pieces, and firearms that contain less than 200 grams of African elephant ivory and where ivory is not the primary material or source of value of the item.
We've struck an appropriate balance that will dramatically improve our ability to catch and prosecute criminals, while allowing commercial activity in items that are not causes of poaching to continue.
Unless the United States steps up and leads, organized poaching and trafficking operations will continue to threaten elephant populations and the security and stability African elephant range countries.
These changes are an important part of exercising that leadership - and we're far from finished.
Right now, we're working with law enforcement agencies across the globe to target poachers and traffickers.
We've posted law enforcement attachés in countries such as Peru, Botswana, Tanzania, Thailand and China to work with host country and regional law enforcement partners to strengthen their ability to close trafficking routes and make arrests.
We're providing training, and financial and technical support to range countries, helping to build their capacity to protect and conserve elephants at greatest risk.
And perhaps most important, we're working globally with our partners to reduce demand for ivory. The near-total ban on ivory trade in the United States puts us in a position of strength to urge China, Thailand and other major ivory consumers to stand with us and take similar decisive action.
Together, I'm optimistic we can recover wild populations of elephants and ensure they continue to roam the savannas and forests of Africa long into the future.