Kenya: Why Poachers May Not Be the Biggest Threat to Africa’s Majestic Giants


Olive Burrows, Capital FM (Opinion)

Date Published

“It will burn even if it snows,” and true to legendary conservationist Richard Leakey’s words, at 4.30pm on Saturday, Kenya set fire to Sh15 billion worth of ivory; the cost of over 8,000 of Kenya’s majestic giants and if the elephants were lined up trunk to tail, they would cover the distance between Nairobi and Machakos: 60 kilometres.

Under overcast skies, in a scene reminiscent of Kenya’s first ever ivory burn in 1989, President Uhuru Kenyatta led the way in torching the largest ever cache ever to go up in flames in a single act anywhere in the world.

It was the largest-ever torching of ivory, involving 105 tonnes from thousands of dead elephants, dwarfing by seven times any stockpile burned before.

Another 1.35 tonnes of rhino horn will also be burned, representing the killing of some 340 of the endangered animals.

Africa is home to between 450,000 to 500,000 elephants, but more than 30,000 are killed every year on the continent to satisfy demand for ivory in Asia, where raw tusks sell for around $1,000 (800 euros) a kilo (2.2 pounds).

The pyres prepared in Nairobi contain some 16,000 tusks and pieces of ivory.

“I have been asked severally,” he testified, “that we are making a fundamental mistake in destroying this ivory because for Kenya, a poor country, it makes better sense to put the hundred and fifty odd million dollars that they claim this ivory is worth, on the market and use it to develop our country… but Kenya is also a very rich country in terms of the heritage that God has given us and we intend to protect it.”

Words that echoed those of Pope Francis’ on his November visit to Kenya and those spoken by Moi when he put torch to ivory in close to three decades ago: “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 to stop buying ivory,” the New York Times quotes him as saying.

Then as now, Leakey was at the helm of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and then as now, Kenya had plans for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species meeting to be held later in the year in South Africa: a declaration that any and all trade in ivory is not only immoral but illegal.

The decimation of Kenya’s elephant population from 65,000 in 1979 to 17,000 led former President Moi to send out that message through the torching of 12 tonnes of ivory in an act that sent the price of a kilo of ivory plummeting, Leakey is convinced, from USD300 to USD5.

And he hopes Saturday’s burn will do the same and reduce the market value of ivory from the current USD2, 000. On the black market, the quantity of ivory torched in Nairobi could sell for over $100 million, and the rhino horn could raise as much as $80 million. Rhino horn can fetch as much as $60,000 per kilo — more than gold or cocaine.

The burning of over a tonne of rhino horn in the effort, as Moi said, to convince the, “final buyer… not to buy ivory,” he also hopes will reduce demand and bring down the going rate of 80,000 US Dollars for a kilo.

Ivory itself does not burn, and so the fire will be fuelled by a mix of thousands of litres of diesel and kerosene injected though steel pipes buried in the ground leading into the heart of the pyramids.

A former film special effects specialist turned pyrotechnic expert has organised the fuel-fed fires, drawing on his expertise to ensure the stockpiles burn as planned despite torrential rain, and the area around the ivory burn a muddy quagmire.

Experts said it will take up to a week to have the ivory torched in Nairobi get destroyed completely.

Decades worth of awareness campaigns later, the message that ivory is #BeyondEconomic Use, seems to be finally getting through.

French Minister for Ecology Ségolène Royal at the burn on Saturday announced that she would be setting a ban on all ivory trade in France and urged other members of the European Union to do the same.

China, which has for long time received the bulk of the flack for creating a market for ivory, is now setting standards in the penalisation of those who trade in ivory illegally, according to CITES Secretary General John Scanlon.

And while he said he was not utterly convinced that destruction of ivory stockpiles directly co-relates to decreased demand and by extension a decline in the market value of ivory, he commended the effort.

And unlike Leakey, he also wasn’t convinced that CITES allowing the ‘one-time sale’ of ivory by African countries to Japan and China in its 1997 and 2008 meetings was a mistake.

“CITES banned the international commercial ivory trade in 1989. In 1997, recognizing that some southern African elephant populations were healthy and well managed, it permitted Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to make a one-time sale of ivory to Japan totaling 50 tons. This sale took place in 1999 and raised some USD 5 million for elephant conservation,” the CITES website reads.

It was a vote that set back the gains made by Kenya in 1989 when, with partners, it successfully lobbied for the elephant to be declared an endangered species.

Having the ban scaled down to the domestic level of the 182 CITES member states, Scanlon told Capital News, would be put to the vote in September when they’ve scheduled a meet in Johannesburg.

But even if Kenya makes a good case at the CITES meeting and succeeds in its quest, the challenges facing Africa’s remaining elephant population go beyond poachers.

During the Giants Club Summit held in Nanyuki on Friday, and that culminated in the ivory burn on Saturday, concern over ever shrinking elephant corridors and habitats was raised by several participating parties who included Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Gabon’s President Ali Bongo.

“When my voters invade the wetland, forests and national park it’s not easy for me to get them out because they will vote me out.” Museveni admitted.

His solution: “Modernising agriculture, improving yields tells my voters, because those voters of mine I can’t play around with them, that you don’t have to grab more land from the forest or from the wetland or from the mountain top. The one acre you have will give you 53 tonnes instead of the five tonnes you’ve been getting using low technology.”

Kenya’s strategy is to fence off the wildlife protected areas from small-holder farms to protect both the elephant and crop but it’s a solution which Industrialist and Conservationist Manu Chandaria said did not account for their corridors.

“As the International Fund for Animal Welfare it took us close to two decades to convince the proprietors of sub-divided agricultural lands to hive off just a bit to allow for the passage of elephants and with more and more sub-divisions it’ll get increasingly difficult.”

The advice of Space for Giants founder Max Graham is simple: “focus on the wins.”

“We have to keep real and a bit more pragmatic than just saying we’re going to solve all of Africa’s elephants’ problems. We’re not. Many elephants will keep dying particularly in Central Africa (and) parts of East Africa… That means in reality that the dry lands of Africa are going to continue being a wonderful place for wildlife and conservation and it means that where you’ve got mountains or places that are highly arable you’re going to have to work really hard to make sure those places stay wild.”