Before a crowd of thousands (and millions by live streaming), white smoke and a crackling fire billowed from twelve funeral pyres, rising into the sky and blanketing Nairobi National Park on 30 April 2016.
Kenya was staging the world’s largest ivory burning – seven times more than has ever been destroyed at once and five per cent of global ivory stores. The greatest amount burned prior to this was in Hong Kong in 2014 when 28 tonnes were destroyed.
The organisers of Kenya’s record-setting burn intended to send a message to the world – to poachers, sellers and consumers – that ivory has no value and that its trade should be banned.
“This trade means the death of our elephants and the death of our national heritage,” said Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in a speech before the burn. “Ivory belongs to our elephants.”
Worth more alive
Eleven pyres held 105 tonnes of neatly stacked elephant tusks and a twelfth pyre contained 1.35 tonnes of rhino horn. After speeches condemning the practice of the illegal ivory trade and the rampant poaching problem in Africa, the ivory was ceremoniously set ablaze by dignitaries, including Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba, high-level United Nations officials, including Ibrahim Thiaw, Deputy Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and Helen Clark, Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), conservation experts, high-profile philanthropists, celebrities and other dignitaries.
They all united in the hope that the grand gesture would send a strong anti-poaching message to the world. The event was organised by Kenya Wildlife Service and partners.
“We simply cannot afford to allow poaching to go on for one more day,” Mr Thiaw said. “It does not make moral, economic or political sense.”
Using the hashtag #WorthMoreAlive, the Kenyan authorities aimed to highlight the long-term economic value of elephants left alive in natural habitats. President Kenyatta tweeted: “Our message is clear. Ivory is worthless unless it is on an elephant.”
Before the burn, Kitili Mbathi, KWS Director General, said: “The reason we’re doing this is to send a message that there is no intrinsic value in ivory, there is only value in elephants. Anybody who owns ivory, you should be ashamed of yourself. Do not buy ivory.”
President Bongo warned those making money killing elephants and rhinos: “To all the poachers, to all the buyers, to all the traders, your days are numbered.”
“Unless we take action now we risk losing this magnificent animal,” President Bongo later told the Mail and Guardian. He continued, telling poachers, “I will put you out of business, so the best thing you can do is to go into retirement now.”
Africa’s elephant population, which soared at about 1.2 million in the 1970s, has now dwindled to between 400,000 and 450,000.
The Giant’s Club
While the event, the largest of its kind in world history, won the approval of conservationists, it drew quick condemnation from some environmentalists and countries. But Dr Richard Leakey, KWS Board of Trustees chairman, accused countries that hoard ivory stocks of being “speculators on an evil, illegal commodity… They represent a shameful group. They should be shamed out of their position once and for all.”
The burn was preceded by a two-day inaugural Giants Club summit, a historic gathering of leaders from Africa and around the world at the foothills of Mount Kenya to find ways of protecting Africa’s elephants and battling poachers and ivory smugglers.
The Giants Club was founded by the Presidents of Kenya, Gabon, Uganda and Botswana, and Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev, the patron of Space for Giants and the Giants Club. It was created to unite African governments, businesses and conservationists to find a solution to the poaching crisis and assist in the implementation of the Elephant Protection Initiative.
Speaking at the summit, President Uhuru Kenyatta described poaching as a “direct threat” to Africa’s economic progress, and pledged to seek a “total ban on the trade in elephant ivory” at the seventeenth meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which will be held in South Africa towards the end of this year.
The Summit secured multi-million-dollar funding to strengthen frontline elephant protection, boost illegal wildlife trade prosecutions, and spark innovations in conservation finance.
Botswana, Kenya, Uganda and Gabon each laid out visions for actions with proven impact, including new rapid reaction or special operations ranger units, support for strengthening prosecutions, electrified fences to keep elephants out of farmers’ fields, and conservation investment strategies.
Lebedev will put together a new communications strategy worth US$3 million to broadcast elephant protection programmes. Ruth Powys, CEO of Elephant Family, pledged an initial US$500,000 in support, and Jorge Rios of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime announced US$300,000 in new funding.
Between them, the four Giants Club countries together hold more than half of Africa’s remaining elephants and three quarters of forest elephants, a population under protection that will be boosted after Ethiopia announced at the Summit that it would become the fifth Giants Club country.
“What we have seen here today is the start of an African conservation revolution,” said Max Graham, CEO of Space for Giants. “We have always said that what is key to better protection of elephants and their landscapes, and to ending the illegal wildlife trade, is greater political will from Africa’s leaders.”
President Barack Obama, in a message delivered by Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom, praised Kenya’s “tremendous leadership in wildlife conservation”.
Liu Xianfa, China’s Ambassador to Kenya, read a personal letter from President Xi Jinping, describing the “great importance” the Chinese leader placed on the Summit, and promising China’s support “to the best of its capacity”.
French President François Hollande, through his Environment Minister Ségolène Royal, promised to lobby European countries to declare a total ban on ivory trade and also mobilise funds to help Kenya improve wildlife conservation measures.
CITES banned international commercial trade in African elephant ivory in 1989, but has since permitted one-off sales, a move that many blame for the recent escalation in elephant poaching and ivory smuggling. The listing of all African elephants in Appendix I in 1989 sent a clear signal to the world. Ivory markets collapsed and the ivory price crashed, immediately ending the prevailing poaching crisis and allowing elephant populations to recover. Kenya and other like-minded countries hope for a similar effect from the burn and CITES listing later in the year.
Ivory burns have gained in popularity, despite their criticisms, partly because of their symbolic power, but also because stockpiling ivory is definitely not the answer, as they are very expensive to maintain and guard from poachers and other criminals.
Protecting our heritage
KQ’s Marketing Director, Chris Diaz, wants Kenya’s heritage to be protected for future generations
How would you feel if you had to tell your children’s children that you failed to save Africa’s elephants and rhinos from extinction?
None of us want to face this devastating prospect – we must ensure that we do not have to apologise to future generations. It is down to us all to protect Africa’s wildlife for everyone’s sake. We want people of all ages, and from all nations, to have the thrill of seeing our unique wildlife in our beautiful reserves and parks.
At Kenya Airways we are proud to bring the highest number of tourists into Kenya and to fly millions of visitors annually into 42 cities across the continent. Our wildlife heritage attracts large numbers of domestic and international visitors each year, contributing millions of dollars to the tourism sector in Africa. It’s little wonder that Kenya attracts so many tourists – this year alone the country won many awards for its attractions, not least for our magical Masai Mara. Kenya Airways was also delighted to be recognised as Africa’s Leading Airline at the World Travel Awards – we thank our loyal customers for their support.
It is critical that we protect our natural heritage for the millions of guests now and in the future. We invite guests worldwide to enjoy our warm, caring, African hospitality. Please join us in the journey to save our vulnerable wildlife.
Through the lens
Frequent flyer with KQ, photographer Usha Harish gives her perspective on the event
“I got an opportunity to participate in the biggest ever ivory burn event held on 30 April 2016 at Nairobi National Park, Kenya. It was a day of adventure, thrills, excitement, remorse and pain. I entered the park gates on a drizzly Saturday morning and after the necessary security checks and screening, I was transported to the ivory burning site organised by the Kenya Wildlife Service. The place was buzzing with activity with rangers, photographers, reporters, conservationists, organisers, artists, all battling the downpour and all connected to one cause.
“At about 3pm, the President of Kenya arrived with other prominent dignitaries and His Excellency gave a very powerful speech stating the reasons for burning ivory and the serious intent of Kenya to end illegal ivory trade.
“The President lit the pyre along with other important conservationists and dignitaries. It was a funeral, a memorial to thousands of lives lost and a celebration of Kenya’s resolve to end this bloody trade. Had the ivory been sold, as some have suggested, it would only have stoked the flames of greed and demand for more and more ivory. The ivory burn got the special publicity it deserved, a clear message to the world that there should be no more trade in ivory.”