A smuggling enterprise run from a crumbling storefront in Philadelphia imported hundreds of illegal ivory carvings made from the tusks of endangered African elephants, federal prosecutors say.
The four-story, painted-brick building in Old City is where Victor Gordon, 68, allegedly sold ivory brought into the country through New York City between 2006 and 2009. Gordon sent a coconspirator to Africa to purchase raw ivory and have it carved by African craftsmen to Gordon's specifications, investigators say.
Trade in elephant ivory is forbidden by U.S. law and international convention, so most of the nearly 500 carvings seized from Gordon and his customers were treated to resemble century-old antiques, which are legal for sale. But the ivory is actually "new" and constitutes one of the largest illegal ivory seizures ever, say investigators.
Central African forest elephants were slaughtered so their tusks could be cut off to feed the smuggling pipeline.
"It's safe to say dozens" of elephants were killed, "but that's a very low number," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Salvatore Amato.
Smuggling is considered a significant factor in the decline of the forest elephants, whose ivory is denser and more valued than the tusks from the more numerous savanna elephants in East Africa.
The carvings on display Tuesday in Philadelphia ranged from intricate designs incised on four-foot-long tusks to small figurines a few inches high. They were laid out by Fish and Wildlife agents just as Gordon surrendered to federal agents in New York City.
The carvings will be permanently confiscated by the government if Gordon is convicted. The carvings imitate traditional African art, said Edward Grace, deputy chief of the agency's Office of Law Enforcement. Many of the items on display were sophisticated, expressive art, while other items were more kitschy.
Gordon, of Bala Cynwyd, is charged with conspiracy, smuggling, and illegally importing ivory. He is also accused of paying an accomplice, unidentified by agents, $8,000 for each trip to Africa.
Gordon's lawyer, Daniel Alva of Alva & Associates in Philadelphia, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Gordon pleaded not guilty.
A Fish and Wildlife Service expert on elephant conservation, just back from Africa, said the rows of illegally imported ivory carvings left him traumatized. The number of forest elephants killed for their tusks has jumped in recent years, much of it driven by demand from a newly affluent Asian market, said the expert, Richard Ruggerio, who runs the agency's conservation programs in Africa.
"We're seeing the last battle for the survival of the forest elephant," he said.
Ruggerio said the herds have been broken up not just by the killing of individual elephants, but also by the damage done to the group structure when a lead elephant has been eliminated.
"They act like displaced persons from a war," he said.
James Deutsch, who runs the African conservation program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said forest elephants in Central Africa "could go extinct in 10 to 20 years."
"This is why this seizure is important," he said.
Deutsch estimated there were about 100,000 forest elephants left in central Africa. Herds are already gone from a large part of their original range.
Forest elephants can live to more than 50 years. Recent genetic studies show that the smaller forest elephants are distant cousins of the savanna elephant. The split is estimated to have occurred from two million to seven million years ago.
Amato said the carvings were smuggled into the United States by coating them with material to make them appear to be made of wood or clay, giving the investigation the code name "Operation Scratch Off."
A shipment was discovered by federal agents in 2006, launching the investigation. Since then, eight people in New York have pleaded guilty or been convicted.
"We spent three or four years to go up the chain" to Gordon, said Grace.
During two raids in 2009, 428 ivory tusks and carvings were seized in Philadelphia. Other items were taken from customers of Gordon's shop. Carvings were seized outside New York City, in Bryn Mawr, and in Missouri, Kansas, and Florida, among other locations.
Gordon's business, Victor Gordon Enterprises, 31 N. Third St., was closed Tuesday. Behind the pull-down security gate were various African sculptures and masks. Also in the window were two signs calling it "The Most Unusual Store in Philadelphia."
"He's an odd bird," said Vince Horne, 35, who has worked for 11 years at Strands Hair Salon next door. "Just a little peculiar."
For a video with more about the seizure, visit www.philly.com/