Mindy Ussrey says the sight gave her chills.
There they were, eight huge ivory tusks, some of them more than five feet long, the only remnants of four slaughtered elephants.
“It struck me hard,” Ussrey, elephant manager at the Buffalo Zoo, said of the sight. “Being in the same room as these artifacts, it literally gave me chills.”
Federal prosecutors say the tusks are at the center of an investigation that has already resulted in the conviction of a Franklinville antique dealer for trafficking in prohibited wildlife.
[PHOTOS: Trafficking in ivory]
Ferdinand Krizan, the 77-year old owner of Fred’s Antiques, admitted buying and selling elephant tusks as part of a plea deal Wednesday that could send him to prison for up to 18 months.
The plea agreement says Krizan bought two elephant tusks at an auction house in Montreal, smuggled them across the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls and then sold them, with four other tusks, to an individual in Massachusetts for $50,000.
“For those of us who love animals, it sickens us,” said Zoo President Donna Fernandes.
Fernandes and Ussrey said the tusks are an ugly reminder that elephants, now slaughtered at a rate of 26,000 each year, could become extinct in our lifetime.
Prosecutors say the eight tusks were seized from individuals who bought them from Krizan and are currently under investigation. They also claim Krizan illegally trafficked in other protected wildlife, including a Narwhal whale tusk he sold for $8,000.
The antique dealer, as part of his plea deal, also surrendered more than 180 ivory carvings and figurines he sold online and at flea markets. Prosecutors estimated the total value of their seizures at $320,000.
“He trafficked in a substantial amount of ivory,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron J. Mango.
Defense attorney Rodney O. Personius challenged the government’s portrayal of Krizan and suggested he’s nothing but a small-time “flea market” antique dealer who regrets what he did.
With family members watching from the gallery, Krizan pleaded guilty before Chief U.S. District Judge Frank P. Geraci Jr. He will be sentenced in May.
“He’s a retired tree farmer who did antiquing on the side,” Personius said of his client. “He fully cooperated with the investigation and gave up everything.”
Mango said the investigation into Krizan began with a raid of a Montreal auction house that turned up records of buyers, including Krizan.
With the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, prosecutors tracked Krizan’s purchases to Niagara Falls, Ont., across the border into the U.S. and ultimately to the individual in Massachusetts who bought the six tusks.
Investigators say the state banned the trading of illegal ivory in 2014 and the Fish and Wildlife Service followed suit by prohibiting most ivory imports and exports. They say the goal is to slow the killings in Africa and Asia by reducing the market for ivory in the U.S., the second-largest market in the world.
“What is bad news for Mr. Krizan is good news for elephants and all endangered wildlife,” said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr.
At Wednesday’s news conference, investigators and zoo officials provided a graphic description of how poachers slaughter an elephant, including cutting off its head so the tusks can be removed.
“When you talk about poaching, this is what you see,” said Capt. Frank Lauricella of the DEC’s law enforcement division. “It’s not pretty.”
Hochul said Krizan’s conviction should serve as a warning to wildlife traffickers that federal investigators are committed to ending the poaching of elephants and the commercialization of ivory.