La Jolla gallery charged in $1.3-million illegal ivory ring

A massive ivory trafficking ring has been been broken up at a La Jolla art gallery, and criminal charges filed against the perpetrators, San Diego City Atty. Mara Elliott said Wednesday.

More than 300 pieces of elephant ivory and items containing ivory were confiscated from the Carlton Gallery in the popular Prospect Street shopping area and a nearby warehouse, Elliott said. The items were valued at more than $1.3 million.

Misdemeanor charges have been filed against the gallery, along with salesman Miles Kupersmith and owner Victor Hyman Cohen, Elliott said.

They are accused of violating a state law that bans the sale or possession of nearly all ivory. The law was authored by state Sen. Toni Atkins to protect elephants. Each year, poachers slaughter tens of thousands of African elephants to get ivory from their tusks.

The seizure was the largest since the law went into effect in 2016, Elliott said. She and others involved in the operation spoke at a news conference held at the San Diego Zoo, which belongs to an international alliance dedicated to stopping wildlife trafficking.


State wildlife officials began investigating last year after officers observed two art deco sculptures in the gallery’s display window. The sculptures appeared to contain ivory.

Further inspections found additional items that appeared to contain illegal ivory, most from elephant tusks but some also from hippopotamus teeth, which the law also bans.

On May 1, undercover officers purchased an ivory sculpture from Kupersmith, who offered to sell three more sculptures, Elliott said. That allowed wildlife officers to get a search warrant, which led to the seizure of a total of 338 pieces with elephant or hippopotamus ivory.

Most illegal ivory goes to China, according to a fact sheet provided by Elliott. There, a pair of ivory chopsticks can sell for more than $1,000. In Central Africa, poaching is carried out by militias and terrorist groups to fund their operations.

There are three exemptions to the ban under Atkins’ law, known as AB 96. One is for musical instruments manufactured no later than 1975. These are allowed to contain less than 20% ivory by volume. The second is made for antiques with less than 5% ivory by volume. The third exemption applies to ivory owned by educational institutions.

But the items didn’t fall under those exemptions, Elliott said.

The sting

Elliott was joined at the news conference by others from her office, along with Atkins, zoo director Dwight Scott, and officials from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The department took part in a sting operation at the gallery that led to the charges.

Among the fish and wildlife team present: Indiana Jones, an ivory-sniffing German shepherd mix.

“There’s bomb detection dogs, there’s narcotics dogs, and this is a wildlife trafficking dog,” said Paul Ton, one of the department’s human officials.

Ton took part in an investigation in San Diego County last year that led to the 24-count complaint filed in San Diego Superior Court. For 12 of the counts, the maximum penalty is a year in jail and/or a $40,000 fine.

“We visited dozens of businesses, and this business happened to be one where we identified potential violations,” Ton said. The undercover visit also revealed an intent to violate the law, and that prompted the investigation, he said.

While the various officials spoke at the zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, Shaba the African elephant strolled the grounds. Her kind numbered up to 5 million a century ago; now fewer than 500,000 are left.

Each year, about 30,000 African elephants are killed. They are rated as “vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

“Rampant ivory poaching has left elephants in dire straits: 96 are killed every day,” Elliott said. “At that rate, we have 10 years left to save them.”

Atkins, a San Diego Democrat, said she feels a local connection to elephant conservation because of the efforts of the zoo. And lately, she’s been captivated by the new additions to the elephant herd at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

“We have these incredible new baby elephants,” Atkins said. “I don’t know if you follow them on social media, I do, it’s the best part of my day. And you see Kaya and Zuli with the herd of female elephants that take care of them.

“Then you juxtaposition that to a picture of a baby elephant who is attached to its mother, who has been slaughtered,” she said. “There is nothing more horrific than that.”

“Today in San Diego, our city attorney, our team of investigators, take a stand and say we will not tolerate this,” Atkins said.

Wider goals

While this investigation focused on elephant and hippopotamus ivory, Atkins’ bill provides comprehensive protection of ivory from other mammals, including narwhal, walrus, warthog and whale.

Moreover, it also bans trade in rhinoceros horn. As with elephants, rhinoceros poachers kill the animals.

Adrian Foss, a captain with the state’s fish and wildlife service, said Atkins’ bill gave the department new resources to crack down on these various kinds of wildlife trafficking

“It gave us a unit of five officers, one lieutenant and four investigators, to go and take a deeper look at the ivory trade in California,” Foss said.

“I’m glad to say that we’re adding additional officers this year, too, which will be stationed down in Southern California and hopefully we’ll go up north because there’s plenty of trafficking up that way.”

The bill also added forensics expertise, he said.

“At our wildlife forensics lab we are doing some incredible work on ivory and rhinoceros DNA genetics testing,” Foss said.

Zoo director Scott discussed how poaching has virtually wiped out northern white rhinos.

“As we stand here this morning, there are only two northern white rhinos left in the world,” Scott said. “I have not seen a photo of those two animals that did not include armed guards.”

For years the zoo was home to Nola, a female northern white rhinoceros. When she died in 2015, Nola was one of only four living northern white rhinos.

But if the zoo has its way, even total extinction won’t be the last word in the story of the northern white rhinoceros.

Zoo staff are cooperating with scientists at Scripps Research in an ambitious program to resurrect the subspecies with stem cell technology.

Fikes writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.