World’s largest ivory burn creates stunning image of harm caused by poaching

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105 tons of elephant tusks and 1.35 tons of rhino horn were burned in Nairobi, Kenya (Photo by Christiana Lilly)

NAIROBI NATIONAL PARK, Kenya—Before a crowd of hundreds, white smoke and a crackling fire billowed from 12 funeral pyres, rising into the sky and blanketing Nairobi National Park.

On April 30, Kenya hosted the world’s largest ivory burning, sending a message to poachers, sellers, and consumers that it will not stand for the illegal practice.

“This trade means death of our elephants and the death of our national heritage,” said Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in a speech before the burn. “Ivory belongs to our elephants.”

Eleven pyres held 105 tons of neatly stacked elephant tusks and a twelfth, 1.35 tons of rhino horns. After speeches condemning the practice of the illegal ivory trade and the rampant poaching problem in Africa, the ivory was ceremoniously set ablaze by dignitaries, including Kenyatta, First Lady Margaret Kenyatta, and Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba.

According to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the ivory represents 8,000 elephants and more than 300 rhinos. If the elephants were lined up trunk to tail, they would stretch almost 40 miles.

Gabon hosted its own ivory burning in 2012, putting five tons of tusks “out of economic use.”

“The only way to ensure elephant and rhino survival is to enhance protection, law enforcement, and burn the ivory and rhino horn,” said Paul Udoto, the KWS corporate communications manager.

Ivory is not naturally flammable, but with large amounts of kerosene donated from Total, dry sandalwood, and seized exotic animal skins, the piles will burn for several days before being reduced to ash. They will be moved to existing piles outside the burn site, serving as memorials to the elephants and rhinos whose lives were ended for their tusks and horns—its material composition similar to our own fingernails and teeth.

Not only does burning the ivory send a powerful visual message to poachers and the world, but it also serves a practical purpose.

“Keeping ivory and rhino horn is expensive and there is always the risk that the government-held stockpiles can be leaked into the illegal market,” Udoto said. “Burning ensures that the ivory and rhino horn are permanently out of the market. Selling the ivory and rhino horn only whets the consumer’s appetite and puts living elephants and rhinos under pressure.”

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A Maasai tribesman stands by a pyre of elephant tusks before it is burned (Photo by Christiana Lilly)

KWS partnered with UK-based Stop Ivory to take DNA samples and inventory every single piece of ivory before it was burned, a two-month long process. The data can be used for research as well as evidence in pending court cases. Also, it provides transparency to the process and let’s the public know that pieces weren’t being sold out the back door.

Ivory from African elephants was deemed illegal for sale in 1989 by the member states of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). That same year, Kenya hosted its very first ivory burning, a stockpile of 12 tons.

However, ivory sales laws were relaxed in 1999 and 2008, leading to an increase in poaching. Today, elephants, rhinos, and other animals are being killed at alarming rates. The accepted statistic in the conservation community is that one elephant is killed every 15 minutes, which works out to about 96 a day or 35,000 a year.

According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) there were more than 1.3 million African elephants in 1979, now there maybe as few as 400,000.

“Elephant populations are still in decline because of the ivory trade and what that means is that more elephants are being killed than are being born,” said Alexander Rhodes, the CEO of Stop Ivory. “So has enough been done? No, because the problem is still continuing. Is there a lot being done? Yes, there is.”

This year, CITES is hosting its 17th annual Conference of the Parties in South Africa, where its 182 members will gather to tackle wildlife issues around the world. Rhodes hopes that ivory will be a major topic.

“At that meeting, there’s an opportunity for the world community to say, we are going to close domestic ivory markets, and that has to happen,” he said.

While many have applauded Kenya and other countries for burning their stockpile, there has also been criticism. Some nations are opposed to burning their stockpiles and instead store them to slowly release into the market at a later time. The argument is that by reducing supply, it will increase demand.

“That is a very ignorant idea,” said Richard Leakey, famed Kenyan conservationist and the chairman of the board of directors of the KWS.

He added that after the first burn in 1989, the price of ivory plummeted from $300 to $5 a kilogram.

“They are speculators to an evil, illegal commodity …They should represent a shameful group. They should be shamed out of their position once and for all.”

According to the African Wildlife Foundation, 70% of illegal ivory is sold in China for up to $1,000 a pound. The cost of rhino horn is astronomical at $30,000 a pound.

“We shouldn’t have to burn 105 tons of ivory and 1.3 tons of rhino horn,” Leakey said. “It is a disgraceful shame that this continues.”

Kenyatta addressed the critics in the close of his speech just before heading to the pyres to light the first fire.

“I have been [told] that we are making a fundamental mistake in destroying this ivory because for Kenya, a poor country, it makes better sense to put the $150 odd million that they claim this ivory is worth in the market and use it to develop our country,” he said. “Yes indeed, I agree with those who argue that way as Kenya is a poor country, but Kenya is also a very rich country in terms of the heritage that God has given us.”

Originally published in Fusion online.

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