Rock crusher to destroy six tons of ivory in U.S. effort to smash illicit industry

Ivory set to be destroyed at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colo. CBS

The United States will take action Thursday to ease a crisis in the animal world.

At most, just 650,000 elephants continue to roam Africa -- only half the number that lived on the continent in 1979. In 2012 alone, 35,000 elephants were killed. The reason: profit from ivory tusks and carvings.

On Thursday, major steps will be taken to try to literally smash the industry.

Six tons of illegal ivory are on display at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colo., just hours before the ivory will be poured into a rock crusher, and turned into virtually worthless bits and pieces in an effort to persuade other governments to crack down on the illegal ivory trade, CBS News' Barry Petersen reported on "CBS This Morning."

The ivory includes everything from tusks to fancy jewelry and its destruction is meant to spotlight the devastation caused by poaching.

The illegal ivory trade is one of the worlds most lucrative criminal enterprises, with annual profits estimated at between $8 billion to $10 billion.

The primary destination for smuggled ivory is ever-wealthier China, where owning ivory pieces is a status symbol. Smuggled ivory can bring in more than $1,000 a pound on the streets of Beijing.

The Clinton Global Initiative recently announced an $80 million pledge to fight the increasingly sophisticated illegal ivory trade. And former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke earlier this week at the premiere of a documentary about the ivory trade called "White Gold." She said, "The death toll keeps going up because the poachers are now so well armed. They come in on helicopters with automatic weapons, with night-vision goggles."

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Clinton says every American has a stake in this. She said, "Armed groups like the Janjaweed from Sudan, al-Shabab, which you know is out of Somalia which staged the terrible assault on the mall in Nairobi recently -- they use this illicit trade to fund their terrorist activities across America."

Michelle Gadd works in Africa for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife effort to stop the poaching.

Asked why someone would do this, Gadd said, "For the guy who pulls the trigger on the gun, it's a simple decision on a way to earn money."

And the criminals are getting smarter. Ivory exported before 1989 is still legal, so they discolor tusks to make it look that old, trying to fool inspectors.

Gadd explained, "(Looking to one piece of ivory) This one they've have soaked it in a chemical or even in tea -- concentrated tea ... to try to discolor it and convince people that this is not actually subject to the ban in ivory trade."

The Obama administration is putting its money where its mouth is on the ivory trade, Petersen added on "CTM." The State Department announced Wednesday a $1 million reward for help in dismembering a criminal network that operates out of Laos that runs the ivory from Africa into the Asian markets.

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