Going Up in Flames: The Ivory Poachers’ Stockpile of Suffering


Alex Dymoke, Evening Standard

Date Published

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On April 30, in a ceremony organised by the Kenyan government, the 105 tonnes of tusks — currently under round-the-block armed guard in Nairobi — will go up in flames.

It will follow The Giants Club Summit, a historic gathering of African heads of state dedicated to averting the elephant poaching crisis, and it signals Kenya’s commitment to ending the blight of poaching.

The country’s environment secretary, Professor Judi Wakhungu, said, “Kenya is once again boldly leading the way by demonstrating ivory must be put beyond economic use by burning our entire stockpile.

“[The burn] is evidence of our zero tolerance approach towards poaching and illegal wildlife trade. Kenya’s wildlife is a major contributor to not only our economic wealth but also our national pride and heritage. The time to ensure its preservation is now.”

Last year, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta burned 15 tonnes of tusks in what was considered to be the largest such destruction of ivory — the 10ft pyre was reduced to ash over several days. This month’s burning will be seven times bigger.

The plight of African elephants is growing ever more severe. In the past three years 100,000 have been killed by poachers. Proceeds from the illegal wildlife trade support other criminal activities, armed conflict and terrorism. Rangers have been killed and injured in their hundreds trying to protect animals from poachers, and experts have warned that if current rates of decline continue extinction could be only decades away for Africa’s elephants.

The burning questions

When was the first ivory burn? In 1989 President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya burned 12 tonnes of ivory in Nairobi National Park, telling the press “I appeal to people all over the world to stop buying ivory.’’

Why burn ivory? Apart from the powerful symbolism of seeing large stockpiles go up in flames, burning has become more popular because it is expensive to guard them. Ivory worth millions must be kept in secure facilities with 24-hour guards, seen as a burden by many countries.

But doesn’t burning increase the value of ivory in circulation? Some experts have argued that taking ivory out of circulation reduces supply, and risks making trafficking and poaching more lucrative. Detractors of the method say it has had negligible impact on the illegal trade.

Is there any empirical evidence of the effects of burning? There is little empirical evidence. Most advocates talk instead of sending out a “message”. They believe getting rid of state-owned stockpiles removes any reason for poachers, traders, speculators and consumers to believe the legal ivory trade will be reinstated.

What are the practical challenges of burning ivory? It is surprisingly difficult — prolonged exposure to extremely high temperatures is needed to ensure total destruction. It can take up to a week for a large pyre to be reduced to ash. For this reason, some countries, notably the US and the Philippines, favour crushing as a method of disposal.

The Giants Club Summit was an-nounced by Mr Kenyatta in the Evening Standard in February. Conservationists, business leaders and celebrities will join heads of state at the meeting in Kenya on April 29 and 30. It is being hosted by Mr Kenyatta in partnership with wildlife charity Space for Giants, whose patron is the Standard’s proprietor Evgeny Lebedev. He said the gathering would achieve “real progress in securing a future for Africa’s elephants”.

National leaders invited to attend include the presidents of Liberia, Chad and Tanzania and the prime minister of Ethiopia. It will be the first time African heads of state will have met on African soil with the express purpose of saving their continent’s elephants. 

They aim to find a lasting solution to the poaching crisis by agreeing frontline protection measures, boosting international agreements to combat the ivory trade and funding conservation efforts.

The Giants Club was founded by the presidents of Botswana, Gabon, Kenya and Uganda and is backed by the Standard. Its objective is to bring together business leaders, politicians and philanthropists to provide the political will and financial resources to secure Africa’s remaining elephant populations and the landscapes on which they depend.

Stacked unceremoniously in a strip-lit stock-room, it’s hard to fathom the wanton slaughter that this stockpile represents. For every pair  of tusks, an elephant died a violent death, machine-gunned or poisoned by criminal gangs desperate for the fleeting riches ivory can bring.

Africa’s elephants face a perilous future. Tens of thousands are being killed every year. As Prince William recently warned, there’s real danger our children and grandchildren will not know this magnificent creature in the wild — unless we act now.

The Giants Club Summit answers the Prince’s call to action. Convened by the Kenyan government in partnership with Space For Giants, this historic gathering of business leaders, conservationists and heads of state will see real progress in securing a future for Africa’s elephants.

To underline its commitment to combating poaching, the Kenyan government will follow this momentous event with the biggest ivory burn ever staged. To burn ivory is to send a signal: never will the Kenyan state profit from this illegal trade. Never will it countenance the short-sighted robbery of Africa’s wildlife, identity and future economic prospects.

As President Kenyatta wrote in this paper, Kenya and Africa depend on natural resources for tourism and a stable economy. Africa’s elephants, it must be realised, are worth far more alive than dead. We preside over their destruction at our peril.