“Kenya is making a statement that for us ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants.”
The statement was made by Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta, who set fire to twelve ivory towers in Nairobi National Park this Saturday (April 30), filling the air with smoke and ash. It was a dramatic signal of Kenya’s commitment to ending the illegal wildlife trade.
Heads of state from several African nations and hundreds of onlookers watched 105 tonnes of elephant ivory and more than 1 tonne of rhino horn—together worth over $172 million—go up in flames. This was the largest stockpile of confiscated illegal wildlife products ever destroyed.
"The rising value of elephant ivory trade, illegally on the international market, has resulted in a massacre in the rainforest of Africa," Kenyatta told the crowd. "In 10 years in central Africa we have lost as many as 70 percent of the elephants. The elephant, as has been said, is an iconic symbol of our country. Unless we take action now we risk losing this magnificent animal."
Africa had 1.3 million elephants in the 1970s but that number has dwindled to about 500,000 today. Such alarming population decline is attributed to poaching and the high demand for ivory products mainly in China.
In 1989, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) placed the African elephant on Appendix l, making commercial trade of this species illegal. Trade in African ivory was officially banned in 1990.
But the ban has several limitations that have reduced its effectiveness: it only applies to international trade; hunting trophies are usually exempt; and temporary lifting of the ban for one-off ivory sales is still allowed. Additionally, as populations began to recover following the ban, some were transferred to Appendix II, allowing restricted trade in ivory to resume.
As this year’s conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Johannesburg approaches, Kenya is making its intentions abundantly clear—it will push for closure of all ivory markets.
In opposition to the ivory burning, some have argued that further reducing an already scarce commodity could increase its value on the black market and encourage more poaching. Others suggest that selling the ivory, rather than burning it, could help to finance efforts in Kenya to protect wildlife.
Since Kenya orchestrated the first public ivory burning in 1989, at least 21 other nations have followed suit by conducting 28 ivory burns and crushes. Supporters of ivory destruction contend that it reduces demand by showing the public that there is no value in the product. Some also argue that burnings can help diminish supply by sending a highly visible message to poachers and traders that their efforts will be in vain.
What is certain is that the historic ivory burning that took place in Kenya on Saturday is not being ignored. Even after the smoke clears, countries such as Kenya, Gabon, Uganda, and Botswana—which together have more than half of Africa’s remaining elephants—must continue to take action.
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Editor's note (May 2): the article was originally published under the incorrect author.