Kenya Burns Ivory to Quench Poaching

Article and photos by Bill Clark

Rangers reported that a pride of lions came prowling after nightfall, stalking among the brightly burning pyres at the ivory incineration site. Very unusual. Lions normally avoid fire—and this was a spectacularly large fire: 105 tons of ivory, and another 1.35 tons of rhinoceros horn, merging into a conflagration that could easily be seen even from the Ngong Hills.

What would motivate the lions to approach this site where the tusks of some 10,000 elephants were being consumed in a hellish inferno? I would risk accusations of anthropomorphism if I suggested they came to pay their respects to the memories of so many who had been slain to satisfy human vanity. No, there must have been some other feline motivation that human science has yet to identify.

Many of the people witnessing this solemn event, on April 30 in Kenya’s Nairobi National Park, were indeed there to pay their respects, to mourn, to listen to fervent speeches and embrace those voices of resolution, determined to change the world’s treatment of elephants. “We will burn our ivory,” intoned Dr. Richard Leakey, chairman of Kenya Wildlife Service’s board of trustees. “Never again shall we trade in ivory.”

Some of us shared more unkindly motivations. For a while, mine was sheer anger. I was angry at a human society that could permit such an enormous tragedy to happen. I was angry at the corruption and the ineptitude and the small-mindedness and the indifference. I stared at the 12 funeral pyres for a long while; I felt the heat, and the pulsing breeze generated by the hot fires. The smell, especially of burning rhinoceros horn—formed of keratin, the same as human hair—was pungent. The ground, after days of seasonal “long rains” was muddy. The fire crackled and popped and sent enormous columns of flame and smoke skyward in a gesture that could be seen as an appeal to heaven.

The Kenyan ceremony was a dramatic opening salvo in a five-month campaign aimed at creating a total and permanent end to the ivory and rhinoceros horn trafficking business. The matter will be taken up in late September, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Conference of the Parties takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa. There, Kenya and its sympathetic allies will ask the 182 CITES member nations to close all of the loopholes that have permitted a catastrophic tragedy to unfold over the past decade.

There is a proposal to return all elephant populations to Appendix I and impose a total and permanent ban on international trade in ivory. There is another proposal demanding that all domestic markets be shut down as well. True, CITES is concerned primarily with international trade, but it is the existence of legal domestic markets in individual countries that provides the financial incentive to poach elephants and smuggle their ivory. Another proposal calls for the destruction of national stockpiles of ivory and rhinoceros horn—after all, why keep such stockpiles if there is no intent to sell them at some later date? And there are other proposals to assure that the trade shut-down is total and permanent.

Prior to lighting the torch, President Uhuru Kenyatta reminded participants that lions and flamingos and cheetahs and even elephants still roam free in Kenya, and that they are a blessing to the country. “But blessings, however, come with duties. It falls upon us to protect them. … No one has any business in trading in ivory, for this trade means death.” He said the ivory being incinerated was estimated to have a value of $150 million to criminals. “But for us, ivory is worthless, unless it is on our elephants.”