New York jewelers admit sale of 1 ton of illegal ivory

NEW YORK Thu Jul 12, 2012 5:24pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two New York jewelers pleaded guilty on Thursday to selling roughly 1 ton of illegal ivory worth more than $2 million, including elephant tusks apparently poached to satisfy a spike in customer demand, authorities said.

The large-scale seizure of luxury goods, including ivory beads, bracelets and intricately carved tusks, was one of the biggest in New York City history, said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance.

"Poachers should not have a market in Manhattan," Vance said in a press release. "We need to curb the demand side of the illegal ivory trade right here at home."

Plea agreements reached by jewelers Mukesh Gupta and Johnson Jung-Chien Lu called for them to turn over their ivory -- valued at more than $2 million, Vance said. They will also pay fines of $45,000 and $10,000 respectively, which will be given to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Gupta, 67, and Lu, 56, admitted to charges of illegal commercialization of wildlife for selling ivory accessories in their jewelry stores near Manhattan's famous Diamond District.

Under New York State law, ivory and ivory-made goods can only be sold with a license and proof the items were made or obtained before the Asian and African elephants were listed as endangered animals in the 1970s.

Their arrests in 2012 came after a record year for illegal ivory seizures. In 2011, almost 25 tons of contraband ivory was collected from around the world, more than at any time since ivory harvesting became illegal in 1989.

Most illegal ivory is bound for Asia, with China, Japan and Thailand among the top destinations, Vance said. It is used for billiard balls, piano keys, carved art and jewelry, authorities said.

The number of elephants killed by poaching has doubled in the last decade. Today eight out of every 10 elephant deaths is the result of poaching, compared with four out of 10 deaths six years ago, the prosecutor's office said.

(Reporting by Lily Kuo; editing by Barbara Goldberg and Cynthia Osterman)

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