National Geographic Society Newsroom

Deep River and the African Elephant

By Paula Kahumbu On November 14, less than a week after a solemn event in honor of African elephants in the sleepy town of Deep River, Connecticut, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will pulverize six tons of ivory in a very different kind of ceremony thousands of kilometers away in Denver, Colorado. The ivory...

Picture of an ivory factor, man holding ivory
A photo of an ivory factory at the Deep River Museum. Photograph by Paula Kahumbu.

By Paula Kahumbu

On November 14, less than a week after a solemn event in honor of African elephants in the sleepy town of Deep River, Connecticut, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will pulverize six tons of ivory in a very different kind of ceremony thousands of kilometers away in Denver, Colorado.

The ivory crush will demonstrate that the United States enforces zero tolerance toward ivory traffickers, and will show solidarity with African nations who are fighting an unprecedented rise in the poaching of elephants. The event will no doubt ignite great passions, as the ivory that will be destroyed includes exquisite carvings that have been seized from traffickers over the years.

Most conservationists agree that there is a need for bold statements and courageous actions at this challenging time. Ivory trafficking emerged as a national concern in the U.S. when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought the issue to Congress in November 2012, and President Obama further deepened the country’s commitment by announcing a $10 million pledge to support African nations. Then, in September 2013, seven African presidents and 17 conservation organizations joined Hillary and Chelsea Clinton in announcing the Clinton Global Initiative’s commitment to stop the poaching and the trafficking and buying of ivory. They pledged to raise $80 million toward the cause.

‘The Crush’

“The Crush,” as the event has become known to conservationists, is the second of its kind; the government of the Philippines held a similar event earlier this year. The event in Denver will be led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and have many major conservation organizations in attendance. I’ll be there, representing WildlifeDirect in Kenya.

“The crush will not stop the poaching or the trafficking of ivory, but the visual spectacle of six tons of ivory being crushed under heavy road machinery will send a message to the world,” said Richard Leakey, the man who first burned Kenya’s ivory stockpile more than 25 years ago in a global statement that led to the international ban on ivory trade.

The crush will no doubt make global headlines, but its moral significance pales in comparison to the solemn events in the tiny town of Deep River, Connecticut, on November 10 and 11.

Picture of plaque for elephants in Deep River
Photograph by Paula Kahumbu.

A Town Built on Ivory

Deep River is more like an idyllic country village than a town, but it has a dark history: It owes its prosperity to the ivory trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Over the weekend, hundreds of locals gathered to immerse themselves in understanding their town’s ivory history. They attended lectures with local historian Brenda Milkofsky, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Herb Raffaele spoke about the challenges of the illegal trade. U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney also graced the event, and I spoke about the ongoing massacres on the ground in Africa.

I was amazed that so few people knew about the animal whose teeth had brought wealth to their village. They watched the award-winning National Geographic film Battle for the Elephants and expressed horror at the unfolding crisis. Children read their own thoughtful essays and poems and displayed creative artworks during an event at the local museum.

Then the community dedicated an elephant sculpture at the entrance of the town hall and laid a plaque with carefully chosen words:

“Deep River remembers its debt to this majestic creature as it looks forward to a new future as ‘Queen of the Valley.’”

One Elephant, 45 Pianos

Indeed, Deep River owes a steep debt to the African elephant. Nestled in the lower Connecticut River Valley, it and the nearby village of Ivoryton in Essex at one time processed up to 90 percent of the ivory that was imported into the United States. John Heminway, writer and director of Battle for the Elephants, and I spent hours learning about the fascinating history of the town’s ivory past, which is beautifully documented and displayed in its local museum. We discovered that during the 19th century, the trade contributed to the slaughter of 100,000 elephants each year, and this went on for decades.

According to the Deep River Historical Society, it began with Phineas Pratt’s invention of the circular saw. This led to the area’s dominance in the production of piano keys—made of ivory. The ivory business was so profitable for Deep River that it won the town the dubious title of “Queen of the Valley,” which refers to its location in the lower Connecticut Valley. Between 1862 and 1863, Deep River and Ivoryton were at the center of ivory milling in the United States.

It was a lucrative business; a 75-pound adult African elephant tusk could yield the wafer-thin ivory veneers to cover the keys of 45 pianos. Ships sailed for East Africa, docking at Zanzibar to load the ivory cargo taken from elephants gunned down deep in the interior of Africa. The business takes an even darker pall when one considers that the ivory was carried on the backs of African slaves.

‘We Can Change the Future’

Rather than shying away from this dark history, the people of Deep River are acknowledging it, teaching it to the younger generations, and contributing toward saving elephants. Some residents told me, “We cannot change the past, but we can change the future.” Grade-school children seemed to grasp the significance of their town’s history, writing lines in their essays such as, “We drove one of the gentlest species on the planet to the brink of extinction,” and “Our blood and elephants’ blood are one.”

I was deeply honored to have participated in the moving and intimate events of the weekend for the African elephant. Though we are many generations removed from Phineas Pratt, it is a heavy burden for the people of Deep River to accept that their ancestors had such a devastating impact on elephants.

I came away humbled and inspired by what I witnessed. It’s true that the prosperities of Deep River and Ivoryton are founded on ivory, and yet the towns now thrive without it. Their decision to adopt the African elephant as the town icon is an important source of hope, and it has unlocked a compassion for elephants that would not have been possible in this community without its shameful history.

The lessons of Deep River and Ivoryton have far-reaching implications—for China, Hong Kong, Thailand, and others. Not only can they give up their addiction to ivory, but they too could say no to further responsibility for the slaughter of elephants and instead become leaders in the fight to save one of the world’s most magnificent animals.

To learn more about Deep River’s connection to Ivory Cutting, visit

Dr. Paula Kahumbu is a Kenyan wildlife conservationist and the CEO of WildlifeDirect, a Kenyan based conservation organization. She is also the winner of the National Geographic/Howard Buffet Award for Conservation Leadership in Africa and is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. She recently received a special commendation at the United Nations Person of the Year celebrations in October 2013 for her critical role in creating awareness and mobilizing action around the crisis facing elephants in Kenya.  

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.