MANHATTAN SUPREME COURT — In one of the largest illegal ivory busts in New York City history, two Midtown jewelers pleaded guilty Thursday to selling more than $2 million worth of ivory from endangered elephants.
As part of their plea deals, Mukesh Gupta, 67, and Johnson Jung-Chien Lu, 56, turned over nearly a ton of ivory jewelry, figurines and carved tusks, valued at more than $2 million, to prosecutors. The men and their businesses also pleaded guilty to illegal commercialization of wildlife and will pay $55,000 in fines to the Wildlife Conservation Society.
"Poachers should not have a market in Manhattan," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said in a statement. "We need to curb the demand side of the illegal ivory trade right here at home."
The recent bust was part of a larger investigation by the DA's office to crack down on the illegal trade of ivory, which, despite international efforts, has been on the rise in recent years.
Under New York law, ivory can only be sold with a special license that proves the items were made or purchased before the 1980s — before elephants were placed on the endangered species list.
Ronald Russo, Lu’s lawyer, said Thursday that the only mistake his client made was not getting a license.
"If you have a permit, it’s not illegal. We did not have a license,” Russo said. “If he had a license, we wouldn’t be here.”
But authorities said the men's businesses — Lu's New York Jewelry Mart on West 46th Street and Gupta's Raja Jewels on West 45th Street — both sold ivory poached from elephants more recently, which is always illegal.
Under their plea deals, the men won't face jail time.