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Kenya sets fire to the trade

A stack of elephant tusks burns at the Nairobi National Park A stack of elephant tusks burns at the Nairobi National Park Fredrik Lerneryd/AFP/Getty Images
28 May
By setting fire to the world’s largest ever stockpile of ivory, Kenya aims to draw global attention to the threats facing African elephants, especially from poaching

Twenty-seven years ago, in July 1989, the Kenyan government sent 12 tonnes of ivory up in flames, a signal that it intended to stamp out elephant poaching, motivated as it was by the lucrative global ivory trade. Just three months later, that trade was banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Last month, 105 tonnes of elephant tusks (as well as 1.35 tonnes of rhino horns) were set alight in Nairobi National Park, the most ivory ever burned at one time. It marked the conclusion to the inaugural ‘Giants Club’ elephant summit. Ivory demand – and consequently elephant poaching – has escalated since CITES experimented with the reopening of the trade at the turn of the millennium, especially from China and other Asian markets. Similar to 1989 (as well as subsequent burnings in 1991, 2011 and 2015), the intention of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and Kenyan government, beyond simply removing any value from the stockpile, was to focus attention on the estimated 30,000 African elephants now poached for ivory each year. It comes ahead of the 17th meeting of CITES which will be held in Johannesburg, South Africa, later this year at which Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has affirmed he will push for a ‘total ban on trade in ivory’. CITES will be reviewing regulations surrounding the trade in all elephant ‘specimens’, as well as from tigers, rhinos, lions, and other CITES-listed species.

Kenya has a very strong stance on wildlife utilisation and was never going to sell its ivory. Burning it is a great statement for Kenya to make to the world

‘When a country takes a decision to publicly destroy its confiscated stockpiles of elephant ivory or rhino horn,’ commented CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon, ‘I do believe it presents a unique opportunity to draw public attention to the scale, nature and devastating impacts of the serious crimes that lie behind these confiscations and to act as a deterrent to illegal trade.’

Geographical asked Chris Gordon, Kenya Country Manager of the Zoological Society of London’s Central, East and Southern Africa Conservation Programme about the impact of the pioneering 1989 ivory burn, including how it led to the creation of the KWS. ‘With funds flowing in, they became better equipped and trained, and as a result poaching was more controlled,’ he explained. ‘I think this is the way things will respond after this burn; KWS will see an injection of funds to tackle issues on the ground. Poaching figures in Kenya have been dropping over the past 18 months already. Economics aside, Kenya has a very strong stance on wildlife utilisation and was never going to sell its ivory. Burning it is a great statement for Kenya to make to the world.’

This was published in the June 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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