DENVER — Five elephants, machine gunned to death, lay on the ground, their shriveled carcasses blanketed with white vulture feces. Where their tusks should have been, there were gaping wounds.
That was the horrifying sight discovered by wildlife officers in Uganda in 1982.
Today, the scene greets air travelers as they walk to and from Concourse C of Denver's Stapleton Airport. A large color photograph of the scene, bordered by the type of ivory jewelry items for which the elephants were killed, is part of an exhibit called "Souvenirs of Slaughter."
The World Wildlife Fund, which strives to halt illegal international trade in wildlife and wildlife parts, assembled the exhibit, with the Denver Museum of Natural History. It's part of a WWF program to raise the consciousness of Americans on the impact that such trade, legal and illegal, has on wildlife worldwide.
The exhibit isn't solely an ivory display. Other sides of the exhibit feature displays of confiscated products made from wildlife parts:
--A matching leopard skin handbag and coin purse.
--A tiger's incisor, mounted in a man's necklace pendant.
--Men's $350 crocodile shoes, plus crocodile wallets and watch bands.
--Salad mixing utensils, a jewelry box and mandolin, all made of endangered sea turtle shells.
--Skin cream, Crema de Tortuga, from Mexico, made from sea turtles.
--Margay and leopard skins.
Each day, thousands of air travelers pass the exhibit. During peak air travel hours, crowds of people two and three deep surround the exhibit.
And more are on the way.
"We'd like to have similar displays at the top 10 busiest airports in the U.S., to get the message out that people should think twice before buying wildlife products overseas," the WWF's Ginette Hemley said.
The World Wildlife Fund is an international conservation organization dedicated to preserving endangered species and habitats. It works with the federal government's wildlife law enforcement agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to help reduce illegal worldwide traffic in wildlife parts.
The WWF monitors population estimates of threatened and endangered species worldwide. One nation, it says, is the major consumer for products made from wildlife: the United States.
The WWF estimates that $150 million worth of smuggled or laundered illegal wildlife and wildlife products enter the U.S. each year.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cautions Americans traveling overseas to think twice before buying products made of wildlife species or plants. When it doubt, don't buy, it advises.
Because of the complexity of regulations governing wildlife importations, travelers who have questions about the overseas purchase of wildlife products are advised to contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the World Wildlife Fund in Washington before departing.
Profits on the sale of wildlife and wildlife parts smuggled into the U.S. are high because demand is high, the WWF says. Despite tough federal smuggling laws, which can call for fines up to $20,000 and prison sentences, the trade continues.
Much of the WWF's effort involves the ivory trade. Surprisingly, U.S. travelers can buy ivory products in some African nations and bring it back legally to the U.S.
"About 80% of all African ivory products come from elephants that were poached for their ivory," Hemley said.
"Most of what you see for sale in the United States is ivory that was confiscated from poachers by African governments, then sold by the governments. We'd prefer the governments wouldn't legitimize it by selling it, but they do.
"Both South Africa and Zimbabwe have good national park systems where carefully planned culling programs occur. Actually, some conservationists in Africa argue that the ivory trade is a secondary threat to elephants, that the primary threat is habitat loss."
According to the WWF, the African elephant population has dropped from 10 million in 1900 to less than 1 million today. Each year, 50,000 to 80,000 elephants are killed for their ivory.
"African nations ship a lot of raw ivory overseas, and about 80% of that total goes to Japan and Hong Kong, where it's mass produced into ivory products," Hemley said. "About 3 to 4 million pieces come into the U.S. legally each year, in every form from earrings to foot-high carvings. There's a huge internal market in Japan for ivory.
"The wholesale value of ivory leaving Africa each year is about $50 million. By the time it reaches the U.S., its retail value is probably 10 times that.
"Ivory products in the U.S. are found mostly in Oriental specialty shops in Chinatowns, and in art shops in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco."
Poaching of elephants for their ivory and pressure on many other threatened and endangered species won't ease until American consumer demand for wildlife products does, the WWF says. At the moment, demand shows no sign of slackening.