Kenya is destroying more than $170 million worth of illegal elephant tusks and rhino horn
It's the largest destruction of its kind in history
Richard Leakey: "Nobody should be using someone else's teeth to enrich themselves"
It’s an overpowering display of the sheer size of Africa’s poaching crisis.
For the past week, several dozen men have circled a site in Nairobi National Park, unloading elephant tusks from shipping containers – many of them so big it takes two men to carry one tusk – and building them into towers of ivory up to 10 feet tall and 20 feet across.
It forms something like a graveyard for some of the world’s iconic endangered species.
On Saturday, the graveyard will turn into a crematorium.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta will light a match to 105 tons of elephant ivory, 1.35 tons of rhino horn, exotic animal skins and other products such as sandalwood and medicinal bark.
This destruction of illicit wildlife goods dwarfs anything similar that has been done before.
The tusks alone – from about 8,000 elephants – would be worth more than $105 million on the black market, according to wildlife trade expert Esmond Bradley Martin.
The rhino horn, from 343 animals, would be worth more than $67 million. Together, it’s more than $172 million worth of illicit wildlife goods going up in smoke.
That’s one and a half times more than Kenya spends on its environmental and natural resources agency every year.
But the Kenyans say that the stockpile is not valuable – it’s worthless.
“From a Kenyan perspective, we’re not watching any money go up in smoke,” Kenya Wildlife Service Director General Kitili Mbathi said. “The only value of the ivory is tusks on a live elephant.”
Record level of poaching
That’s not just conservationist rhetoric.
Tourism, mostly from wildlife, makes up about 12% of Kenya’s GDP. Over its life, a live elephant generates 76 times more in tourism revenue than it does for its ivory, according to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an elephant rescue and rehabilitation group.
But the group’s founder worries about the future.
“I doubt whether my great-grandchildren will actually be able to see wild elephants living a normal life,” said Daphne Sheldrick, the world-renowned Kenyan conservationist who named the charity after her late husband.
Some 1,338 rhinos were poached in Africa last year, a record number and the sixth year in a row that the number of poaching incidents has increased.
Elephants are in serious threat. Every 15 minutes, an elephant is killed for its tusks.
African governments are fighting the illegal trade in wildlife goods, but they have long puzzled over what to do with confiscated ivory and horn.
The potential income that could be generated from the sale has been difficult for many cash-strapped governments to deny.
The Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) allows for the trade of ivory under certain circumstances.
In 2008, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana auctioned 102 tons of stockpiled ivory, raising $15 million which was put toward elephant conservation initiatives.
Killing the market
But Kenya does things differently.
Under the leadership of renowned conservationist Richard Leakey, the Kenya Wildlife Service developed the idea of burning illegal ivory in 1989.
At the time, Kenya was facing a serious crisis, losing about 4,000 elephants to poaching a year.
Then-President Daniel arap Moi torched 12 tons of ivory in the first burn.
“Within six months of the burn, in 1990, the elephant poaching virtually stopped in Kenya and in most African countries because there was no market,” said Leakey.
“The only solution was to kill market and we did. It was dead for close to 10 years, maybe longer.”
Saturday’s ivory burn is Kenya’s fourth, and the largest one in history by a large margin.
Leakey attributes the current rise in the demand for ivory to one-off permitted sales of tusks.
“There is so much corruption in Africa, so much corruption in other places, that illegal ivory started to enter the trade and the market value for ivory today is higher than it’s ever been,” he explained.
The ultimate goal of the burn, the Kenya Wildlife Service says, is to encourage a total and permanent ban on the trade of elephant ivory, and never allow for its sale, even domestically.
Heads of state from some countries with the largest elephant populations in Africa will be on site for the burn.
But a delegation from Botswana – one of Africa’s conservation success stories – is refusing to attend.
The delegation is in Kenya for a summit on steps to protect Africa’s endangered wildlife species.
Botswana says the burn sends the wrong message.
“We have told communities living with elephants that there is value in conserving elephants for ecotourism and emphasizing that the value of a live elephant should be upheld at all costs,” the government of Botswana said in a statement. “Burning ivory would demonstrate to the communities that the animal has no value.”
Others argue that the burn is a PR stunt that has been done before, but Leakey insists that rather than a stunt, the ivory burn is a statement “that elephants are in deep trouble.”
“When we burn this ivory, we are doing it for a specific reason,” he said.
And today there is a new crisis, and new people to reach with this message, Leakey said. China’s rapidly growing economy and expanding upper class have created a strong market for ivory and rhino horn, he says.
“They (China) never saw the 1989-1990 (elephant) crisis. They were not subjected to the pressure that we brought on the world markets in those days. So we have to do it again – and that’s what we’re doing,” said Leakey.
He says the aim should be to change the attitudes of the people of China and other nations who trade in illicit wildlife products.
He hopes that elephant ivory and rhino horn will lose their luster.
“We want to introduce a sense of embarrassment and shame to the use of products for ornaments, for statues or for eating implements,” Leakey said. “Nobody should be using someone else’s teeth to enrich themselves.”