Kenya burns trove of ivory in first-step promise to destroy stockpile

Government stores of ivory are often raided and sold on the black market by corrupt officials, activists say. It can command nearly $1,000 per pound.

Khalil Senosi/AP
A ranger from the Kenya Wildlife Service walks past 15 tons of elephant tusks which were set on fire during an anti-poaching ceremony at Nairobi National Park in Nairobi, Kenya, on Tuesday, March 3, 2015. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta set fire to the elephant ivory during World Wildlife Day to discourage poaching, saying that 25 years after the historic banning of the ivory trade, new demand from emerging markets is threatening Africa's elephants and rhinos.

Kenya torched $30 million worth of ivory in a ceremony that symbolized its continued battle against poaching and the multimillion-dollar ivory industry affiliated with it. 

On Tuesday, President Uhuru Kenyatta set fire to more than 30,000 pounds of ivory at Nairobi National Park, the largest consignment ever destroyed in Kenya.  The burning was the first step in a promise by the president to destroy a stockpile likely worth millions of dollars. 

“My government shall burn the rest of the stockpile within this year,” said Mr. Kenyatta. "We hope the rest of the world will follow our action in the same manner."

The ceremony, which also marked World Wildlife Day, Africa Environment Day, and Wangari Maathai Day (named after the Nobel Peace Prize conservation activist), came as the government has ramped up its strategy to tackle illegal elephant poaching. The result has been a sharp decline over the past three years in elephant killings: Kenya lost 360 elephants in 2012, 302 in 2013 and 164 in 2014.

With the ivory burning ceremony, conservationists and activists have expressed hope that this will further boost the war against poaching, as it forces the government to tackle the problem from within. Government stores are often raided and sold on the black market by corrupt officials, says Dr. Paula Kahumbu of Wildlife Direct, a wildlife conservation organization.

Asian demand – particularly from China – drives much of the value of ivory on the black market, where it fetches almost $1,000 per pound. The industry is now worth close to $20 billion a year, ranking it fourth behind drugs, weapons, and human trafficking as a global criminal activity.

“[The burning] is something we have been asking for as conservationists,” she says. “We wanted some ivory destroyed, and for the president to commit to the entire stockpile being destroyed.”

Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) spokesman Paul Udoto says the illegal ivory has no economic value to them, saying that "the selling is what has brought us to the state of poaching that we are in.” Kenya refuses to share the size and worth of the stockpile with non-state actors.

Some activists question the government's motives and view the burning as a PR stunt to deflect attention from its record.

In 1973, Kenya had 167,000 elephants, a number that dropped to 20,000 by 1989. That same year, former President Daniel Arap Moi set fire to 24,000 pounds of ivory, and a ban on the international commercial trade of African elephant ivory was announced soon after. Former President Mwai Kibaki held a similar ceremony in 2011.

Today, the elephant population has increased to 38,000.

“Our efforts on the war against poaching has started to bear fruits,” says Judy Wakhungu, the cabinet secretary for environment, water, and natural resources.

The newest initiative has been the unveiling of an elite paramilitary force in January to be based in the parks with the sole focus of preventing poaching. A 2013 law enabled all law enforcement agencies to collaborate and enforce anti-poaching laws, a role previously conducted solely byKWS, the government group charged with overseeing national parks and reserves.

KWS has also been running community awareness programs centered on wildlife conservation. These are vital because national parks and reserves depended heavily on the surrounding community and private lands for their survival.

Kenya has also started collaborating with neighboring countries to share information on poaching and illegal trafficking, Ms. Wakhungu says.

The private sector has also stepped in. Private wildlife conservancies have invested in armed patrols, aircrafts tracking dogs, informer networks, specialized armed teams and drones.

But the situation remains dire throughout the continent where almost 30,000 elephants are killed each year out of a total population of about 500,000, according to Mette Wilkie, UNEP’s director of the division of Environment Policy Implementation.

“If this rampant poaching is allowed to continue at the same high level, there will be no elephants left in Africa by the time we reach the middle of this century, with a possibility that this could happen as early as 2030,” she says. 

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