Scorching the trade: Will Kenya’s ivory burn work?

Kenya recently hosted the biggest ever destruction of an ivory stockpile, but questions remain as to whether the spectacle can help save the elephants.


Oa stormy afternoon in Nairobi National Park, the world’s media gathered to watch dark plumes of smoke pour out from 10 pyres of ivory. At their source, destructive orange flames licked the curved tusks of some 7000 dead elephants.

As the smoke billowed up into the grey skies above and heat poured out from the dramatic scene, it was an intense reminder of the steep rise in elephant poaching across the African continent in recent years. “One hundred thousand elephants were killed between 2010 and 2012,” said Ian Douglas Hamilton, CEO of the charity Save the Elephants, speaking at a summit to address the poaching crisis in April.

It is estimated that only 400,000 elephants remain in the wild, and with one being killed every 15 minutes, the species faces extinction within the next 10 years.

But what actually happens when you send 5% of a commodity market’s supply up in flames? It’s a question that’s been hotly debated in recent months by conservationists, economists and global leaders following the Kenyan government’s decision to burn 105 tonnes of their ivory stockpiles in April this year.

Some argue this is the way to send down the price of ivory and help end poaching for good. Others say it’s a huge mistake, and only by flooding the market with legal sales can elephants be saved.

The reason for the burn, in the minds of the Kenyan government and its supporters, is simple: show that world that ivory is worthless, and that elephants are worth more alive than dead.

Poached elephants suffer brutal deaths – shot, snared or poisoned and left to slowly die as their limbs swell with toxic substances. Yet the reason for these deaths is seemingly futile: to supply a steady steam of intricately carved tusks, chopsticks and trinkets mainly to Asia. Here, a generation of wealthy individuals have a strong appetite for this luxury good, which has been prized in their cultures for generations.

Standing at the site of the burn was Richard Leakey, the renowned conservationist and chair of the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS). The sight of ivory ablaze was not new for him.

This is the second time Richard Leakey has chaired the KWS. While occupying the position in 1989, Leakey ordered the burning of the then government’s ivory stockpiles, and an international ban on sales of the illicit commodity was introduced.

“Let us smash the market,” he told President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya at the time. His lobbying seemed to work: following the ban, ivory sales plummeted, poaching subsided and elephant numbers recovered across the continent.

That was, he says, until pressure was heaped on by some countries including South Africa, and “one off” sales of ivory were legally released into the market once again.

“We saw a rapid rise in the price [of ivory] following suspension of the original ban,” says Leakey. “The market started to grow, and people realised they could now make money from this [through poaching] … the price went way up until today it is around $500–$600 a kilo.” With most elephants having a minimum of 10 kilos in their tusks, he explains, it’s easy to see the temptation of huge financial gain.

This is not, of course, the typical market outcome you would expect to see. Where supply is high, price should be low. Normally, flooding the market would lead to a drop in price, and would discourage illegal trade. It is this methodology that South Africa and its supporting nations used to lobby the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to allow the legal release of ivory into the market.

Speaking against Leakey’s argument that legal sales send demand for ivory up, a CITES spokesperson says, “The CITES Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants [MIKE] programme has … not seen a direct positive correlation between the one-off sales and the increase of demand in Asia. “Whether there is any contributing factor associated with the one-off sales of ivory and the surge in illegal trade in ivory is the subject of on-going deliberations and continues to be debated.”

Max Graham, CEO of Space for Giants, a charity working to end the illegal poaching of elephants across the African continent, is, like Richard Leakey, adamant that a correlation exists. “Normal economic rules of supply-demand don’t work here,” he says.

Total destruction

According to Leakey, the burn provides so much publicity that they hope it will raise awareness and stimulate another global ban. “We are burning the ivory because we believe ivory should be worthless,” says Leakey. “It’s not just about putting it out of economic use, but destroying it completely.”

Putting a match to $100m worth of ivory is a controversial move in a country where 45% of people live below the poverty line. Making it clear that humans can benefit more from an elephant’s existence than its death is a key part of the fight to protect this majestic species, says Hamilton.

At the April summit, he talked about taking conservation beyond just saving the animals, and highlighted the importance of elephants “to better people’s lives”.

His words follow a recent report by iWorry, a campaign that aims to protect elephants by raising awareness of the threats facing the survival of the species. It states, “A single dead elephant’s tusks are estimated to have a raw value of $21,000 … By comparison, the estimated tourism value of a single living elephant is $1,607,624.83 over its lifetime … That makes a living elephant, in financial terms, as valuable as 76 dead elephants.”

Asked about the economic benefit of saving the elephant, Leakey says, “Obviously [in Kenya] we have an economic value in the elephant of attracting tourists, but I think more important is the heritage value.” He hopes that by making wildlife more relevant and enjoyable to Africans generally, the desire to protect the species will follow. “We don’t have [elephants] just to share with tourists. We need to turn the coin over in the course of the next few years and make it more plausible that our National Parks are really for us [Africans],” he said.

As the thousand-strong crowds dispersed from the muddy fields of Nairobi’s National Park, and tons of ivory were left smouldering in the background, it seemed that Kenya was successful in sending a powerful message to the world: our tusks are not for sale.

It now remains to be seen whether this spectacle will have the desired effect of stimulating a global ivory ban, whether more legal sales will be allowed, and perhaps most importantly, whether humans can agree a way to save the elephant before it is too late.

Harriet Constable

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