$2M in illegal underground ivory found in Manhattan

Elephants made from illegal ivory tusks.

It’s not hard to buy illegal ivory on the streets of New York City.

In fact, two men hawked hundreds of trinkets made from the tusks of dead, poached elephants out of two Midtown stores for years.

Today, law enforcement officials announced they cleared both shops of ivory products, which amounted to the largest amount of black-market ivory loot in three decades.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said two men pleaded guilty to illegally selling the ivory. Their inventory included more than $2 million worth of ivory tusks, statues, Buddhas, intricate trinkets and jewelry.

“The black market for ivory is booming,” Vance said. “It’s booming here.”

Mukesh Gupta, 67, and Johnson Jung-Chien Lu, 56, pleaded guilty Thursday in a plea deal that kept them out of jail. But they must pay tens of thousands in fines.

Gupta sold his wares out of Raja Jewels on 7 West 45th Street, and Lu sold out of New York Jewelry Mart at 26 West 46th Street, according to Vance.

The ivory was likely poached illegally from elephants from Central and East Africa, officials said. The items themselves were made in Hong Kong.

They made their way to Midtown, where customers likely had no idea they were buying illegal products, officials said.

It is illegal under state law to sell or offer for sale anything made of endangered or threatened wildlife species, Vance said. However, a vendor can sell ivory if they have a permit from the state proving that the ivory pre-dates the species being on the Endangered Species list.

But the two men did not have permits, Vance said. Gupta will pay $45,000, and Lu $10,000, to the Wildlife Conservation Society to use to train people protecting the elephant population. They also forfeited the nearly $2 million in profits they made from the sales.

Both defendants’ attorneys stressed to Metro that the problem was only a
licensing issue, which is now, after the pleas, fully resolved.

“He was absent a license,” Ronald Russo, attorney for Lu, said. “That was his crime.”

Poaching a growing problem

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora reported in June that elephant poaching is the worst it’s been in a decade. Between 2002 and 2006, four out of every 10 dead elephants worldwide were poached, according to the district attorney’s office, but now that number is eight out of 10. The tusks are used to make items like piano keys and jewelry.

Peter Fanelli at the state Department of Environmental Conservation said the DEC routinely arrests people for similar crimes, but that this was “by far the largest in size and value we have made in the last three decades.”

New York’s animals are also illegally poached, officials said. Copperhead snakes, snapping turtle eggs and black bear gallbladders are all shipped to Asia, Fanelli said.


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