Burning Ivory to Conserve Africa’s Elephants

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President Uhuru Kenyatta sets fire on the ivory stockpile at Nairobi National Park. Photo/PSCU

By Florence Gichoya

For a third time, Kenya has made international headlines by burning a stockpile of ivory. On April 30th 105 tonnes of ivory were burnt at the Nairobi National Park. It is the largest hoard of ivory to be destroyed globally. On July 19 1989, former President Daniel Arap Moi burnt 12 tonnes of ivory tusks at the Nairobi National Park. The action was a bold statement against ivory poaching and trade in the world.

“To stop the poacher, the trader must also be stopped and to stop the trader, the final buyer must be convinced not to buy ivory. I appeal to people all over the world.” President Moi said during the historic event. The destruction of the seized ivory was influenced by the drastic drop of elephant population in the country, from 167,000 in 1973 to 16,000.

The action greatly influenced the global ban of ivory trade by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in October 1989. The resolution was supported by 76 states with 11 countries voting against. Interestingly, among the opponents of the ban were African countries that wanted to carry on trading ivory with Asian countries. Burundi, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe did not support the ban on ivory trade that was a source of revenue for their countries.

Similarly, other countries followed suit in burning ivory stockpile as a public statement against poaching and ivory trade. Zambia burned 9.5 tonnes of seized ivory in 1992.

Richard Leakey, chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service, told Scientific American Magazine that following the 1989 burning of ivory, there was a drastic drop in poaching incidences in Kenya. “The number of elephants being killed in Kenya went down from thousands a year to maybe 100 by the end of 1990, and it remained at that low level for at least a decade.”

On July 20 2011, President Mwai Kibaki, burnt five tonnes of ivory at the Tsavo National Park. “We cannot afford to sit back and allow criminal networks to destroy our common future. Through the burning of contraband ivory, we are sending a clear message to poachers and illegal traders in wildlife about our collective resolve to fight this crime in our region and beyond.” Kibaki said.

He echoed Kenya’s resolve to conserve elephants and fight ivory trade. “Through the disposal of contraband ivory, we seek to formally demonstrate to the world our determination to eliminate all forms of illegal trade in ivory.” He said.

The burning of ivory on April 30th sent a strong message to the world to stand against ivory trade. Richard Leakey believes it’s the best way to change perceptions and attitudes of Asian consumers. “My feeling is that many people who are buying this ivory in China and elsewhere simply don’t know what it is doing to elephants. May be they think that it is coming off elephants that have died of natural causes. When Kenya burns $100 million worth of ivory, they’ll say, ‘What the hell was that about?’ It will help open their eyes to what is actually happening.” Richard Leakey told Scientific American.

According to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), 14 countries have destroyed over 130 tonnes of ivory since 1989. Countries have chosen to either burn or crush their seized ivory, including; Gabon, Chad, Congo, Ethiopia, France, China, Philippines, USA, China and Hong Kong

Still other countries have opted to sell their ivory, with clearance from CITES. In 1999, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe sold 49.4 tonnes of ivory to Japan. The sale precipitated high demand of ivory in Asia, which led to increased incidences of poaching of rhinos and elephants in Africa.

In 2008, CITES permitted Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe to sell 102 tonnes of ivory to China and Japan. Again, the deal saw a surge in elephant poaching.

Kitili Mbathi, the Director General of Kenya Wildlife Service, stated why Kenya was burning the largest stockpile of ivory in the world. “Kenya has decided to burn ivory because the moment you burn it, you are making it beyond economic use. Trophy disposal is left for countries to decide, some opt to crush it.” He said.

Mbathi emphasized that “Ivory is only valuable to Elephants,” and should not be used for other adornments.

According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, 96 elephants are killed every day in Africa, due to the high demand of ivory in Asia.



Demand drives supply

Other endangered species include the Rhinos, which are an easy target for poachers due to the value of their horns. In some Asian countries, the Rhino horn is perceived to have medicinal value. The rhino horn is more valuable than gold, a kilogram sells at more than Ksh 1 million in the black market.

Kenya is home to the third largest Rhino population in the world. According to African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), the poaching of Africa’s rhinos increased by 9,200 per cent between 2007 and 2014, with South Africa losing 1,215 rhinos in 2014.

The biggest challenge is in replenishing the population of elephants and rhinos that have long duration gestation periods. The tragic reality is that high rate of poaching means; there are more rhinos and elephants being killed than those that are being born. A rhino’s gestation period is about 16 months while elephants have a gestation period of almost two years.

Parliament enacted the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act 2013, the law has boosted efforts of wildlife conservation and conviction of poachers. Though the number of arrests has increased, there should be more convictions of poachers, ivory traffickers and their masterminds. Last year, Feisal Mohamed Ali, an ivory smuggler suspect was released from custody yet he is accused of smuggling ivory worth 2 tonnes.

Poaching of African Elephants and Rhinos thrives because of a complex network of cartels, which corrupt law enforcers, custom and immigration officials. The well-organized syndicates are elusive to justice and continue to carry out their crime across borders. Kenya’s cases of poaching have reduced. However, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and Mombasa port continue to be transit points for ivory from Tanzania and Central Africa.