Burning ivory will not end this lucrative trade

There are many ways of killing a cat and burning it is one of them. In fact, you can also, dip the cat under a container of water and close it. But what matters most of whether killing it, like through burning, will actually ensure it does not cause the harm that is making you kill it.

Kenya burned the largest ivory consignment in the the world yet on 30th of April 2016. 105 tonnes of 137 tonnes of ivory were set a blaze by President Uhuru Kenyatta, as a sign of its efforts to stamp out the vice. The reason for burning is simply because it is a tradition that Kenya has had since 1989 when President Moi torched 12 tonnes, explained Environment Cabinet Secretary Prof. Judy Wakhungu.

Environment Cabinet Secretary Prof. Judy Wakhungu when he addressed bloggers before the ivory burn.
Environment Cabinet Secretary Prof. Judy Wakhungu when he addressed bloggers before the ivory burn.

Asked why there is too much publicity around it, she said it is meant to create a buzz around the world that Kenya means business in ending ivory trade.

The 137 tonnes are not all from poachers. They also include those from dead elephants from natural causes, human wildlife conflict and those on transit through Kenya to other parts of the world. Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) was quick to add that 85 percent of the ivory being burned is from Kenya.

The remaining tonnes will be used as exhibits in various court cases against poachers and illicit wildlife traders.

There was also 1.35 tonnes of rhino burnt. Rhinos are not being killed as much as elephants but they are more lucrative. The black market street value for a kilogram of elephant tusk is $1000 while a rhino horn is $65,000, explained Dr. Winnie Kiiru, the country liaison officer for Stop Ivory. Stop Ivory sponsored the ivory burn and also conducted an audit of all the ivory to ensure all the stock is accounted for.

She added that the maximum weight for a rhino horn is 11kg for both horns. However, the maximum for elephants is 60kgs for both tusks. It could mean that the tusks become the easier target because of the weight.

Today, there are about 40, 000 elephants in the country and 1000 rhinos. Of the 1000, black rhinos are 600 while the white are 400. The population makes it the third in the world after South Africa with 20, 000 and Namibia with 3000. It means that in terms of numbers, rhinos are more endangered than elephants.

Prior to the burning, stakeholders in the wildlife industry met in Nanyuki for the Giant’s Club Summit. President Uhuru Kenyatta, President Ali Bongo of Gabon and President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda were among global leaders who graced the summit.

It is the lack of rationale behind burning and data to support that burning actually reduces the vice that will not stop the illicit trade. KWS Director Kitili Mbathi explained that burning has seen a decline in the trade as it scuffles the demand. He was reacting to a counter argument of selling them to the highest bidder.

Since 1989, all three Presidents have burned ivory, with President Uhuru doing it twice. Last year, he burned 15 tonnes at the same venue. But this trend will continue because when you do the same thing over and over again and expect different results, Albert Einstein advised that we should refer to you as an insane person.

One option is selling them to flood the market, to make them lose value. It is a simple demand and supply dynamics which this debate can also consider. But KWS argued that the ivory market is complex and flooding will not necessarily lead to tumbling of prices.

Some of the finished products of ivory displayed at the ivory burning site.
Some of the finished products of ivory displayed at the ivory burning site.

In China, one of the biggest ivory markets has recently seen a drop in market value for ivory. This is been because of general fall of all commodities that has seen investors opt against investing in commodities but elsewhere where they can get higher returns. In addition, a crackdown on corruption President Xi has caused a slump in sales of luxury goods, thereby also affecting ivory products.

There is also an option of storing them, like in a museum where tourists can visit and see the huge stock piles of the ivory in the process becoming a tourist attraction (read revenue generation) mechanism for the country. Botswana has put a sculpture made entirely from elephant tusks, at Sir Seretse Khama International Airport in Gaborone. Botswana environment Minister explained that

It serves as a reminder to people who pass through this building each day that conservation of this iconic species is our collective responsibility. Complemented with a conservation awareness message, we are saying that one live elephant is worth so much more than all the art made of ivory. The statue is a lasting memorial to raise local, national and global awareness of the devastating impact of illegal ivory and the determination of Botswana and the global community to put an end to it. No one profited from this contraband.

In the ongoing online debate about the burn #WorthMoreAlive, #LightAFire, #Tweet4Elephants a 1974 article surfaced in which the government admitted that Margaret Kenyatta, the daughter of Jomo Kenyatta and step-sister to President Uhuru Kenyatta had a license to sell ivory. The debate not only sheds light into the connected, historical importance of the commercial angle to the first family, but also the stolen ivory from State House Mombasa last year.

kenyatta ivory

It is this potent, lucrative and most important angle to the reason burning will not end poaching in Kenya. This is because even today when poachers are arrested and handed stiffer penalties by courts, their masterminds remain untouched. They roam the streets of the capital and enjoy their illicit earnings in the leafy suburbs of Kenya, waiting for the debate to cool off before they continue with their hunt.

It is startling, as aptly recorded by Wildlife Direct Director Paul Kahumbu that not a single ivory trafficker has been sent to jail in Kenya.

In January 2014, courts fined Chinese national Tang Yong Jian man a record sh20 million under new anti-poaching laws which he was smuggling from Mozambique to China via Nairobi. He was found with elephant ivory tusk weighing 3.4kg (7.5 pounds) in a suitcase, at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). But KWS were unable to verify whether he paid and was released or not stating that since it belongs to the Judiciary and Prisons departments, they hardly follow up on the cases. He was to spend seven years in jail if he was unable to pay the fine.

It is estimated that poachers sell a kilogram of ivory at $50 to brokers, who use their corrupt networks to ship them to countries like Vietnam, Laos and China where there is ready demand. A BBC investigatory feature explained the networks from the poachers to wardens to customs officers in Mombasa to higher government officials who are complicit in the illicit trade. In the documentary, an alleged customs agent says that he has to be paid a minimum of $10,000 per container to allow them to be shipped without being inspected because there is a chain of people who need to partake of the loot.

Writing in the Independent , Botswana Minister for Environment Tshekdi Khama remarked

We believe we should preserve and protect whatever remains of these creatures as a reminder of how mankind’s greed leads to the extinction of our planet’s flora and fauna. We cannot burn the shame associated with this and hope it will disappear in smoke…

Today, Bostwana harbors 40 per cent of all elephants in the African Continent, a no mean feat, recognizing that their decision to preserve the ivory is paying off.

Pro burning ivory, like Alex Rhodes, the CEO of Stop Ivory,  who also penned an article in the Independent argue that

it demonstrates Kenya’s commitment to put its ivory beyond economic use in line with the African-led Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI).  It also embodies the growing, common and unequivocal message from across Africa: true value lies with living elephants not cold ivory.

It makes sense, both economic and cultural to ensure that rhinos and elephants keep their tusks for the longest they can, until natural causes determine their fate for they have not complained that they are heavy. But burning the ivory is not an effective way of stopping the vice.

The Kenyan government has declined to declare poaching a national disaster. The reason being that poaching is a national security issue. If it is declared a national disaster, it means that the government is unable to address its national security obligations.

the pyres

At the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club when leaders converged for the Giant’s Club Summit, focus was on how to protect 50 per cent of Africa’s elephants by 2020 by safeguarding their habitats. This is a more practical way of securing them from poachers. For instance, efforts like Aerial Surveillance have tangibly led to a drop in poaching. In Tsavo, this is by 50 percent.

While all leaders, including President Uhuru Kenyatta are emphatic that ivory is worthless when not on elephants and rhinos, their words smack of irony since where they reside is homes of many ivory tusks, used to beautify the surrounding. Many hotels, including the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club have licensed ivory, so does all state lodges and many individuals.

Ivory at State House Nairobi. Photo courtesy of www.mashada.com
Ivory at State House Nairobi. Photo courtesy of www.mashada.com

It is a sign of prestige and prestige is costly. The rhetoric therefore that the ivory is worthless outside of elephants and rhinos falls on deaf ears. Even the poachers themselves, both king pins and foot soldiers understand this and continue to kill them. A few licensed owners including the Finnish Embassy which had legal ivory returned them but many embassies, individuals and government itself has not, failing to lead by example in proving that ivory is only worthy when on elephants and rhinos.


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