(CBS News) COMMERCE CITY, Colo. -- Africa’s elephants are being slaughtered at a record pace by poachers who hope to get rich by selling their ivory tusks.
The U.S. has been trying to stop it. And today the feds sent a powerful message – by gathering all the ivory they have seized in the past quarter-century in a wildlife refuge in Colorado.
Where millions once roamed free across Africa, the numbers of elephants have plummeted because of poaching to about 500,000.
Poaching was the source of six tons of illegal ivory confiscated by U.S. officials, from raw tusks to exquisitely carved statues.
Robert Ruggiero runs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's anti-poaching effort in Africa.
“Even poachers who are killed are readily replaced. There’s an endless supply of people willing to take those risks,” Ruggiero said. “The ivory trade is not driven by poverty. It’s driven by greed.”
On Thursday, a rock crusher turned it all into worthless, gravel-sized pieces, in the hope that other countries would follow the same symbolic step and destroy their stockpiles.
The soaring demand comes mostly from newly rich Chinese, who see ivory as a status symbol. A pound of ivory now sells for more than $1,000 on the streets of Beijing.
It’s made ivory poaching one of the world's largest criminal enterprises, generating estimated profits of up to $10 billion dollars a year. The fear is: Where that money is going?Azzedine Downes, head of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, says some of it ends up in the hands of terrorists.
“I think the intelligence now shows that there are clear links for groups like al-Shabab,” Downes said.
Al-Shabab is the Somali-based group that stormed the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing 67 people.
With only 500,000 elephants left and up to 50,000 killed every year, poaching could make elephants all but extinct in barely a decade.