Kenya made a play for global attention to the continuing scourge of poaching by setting fire to huge piles of elephant ivory and a smaller pile of rhino horns. All in all, 11 pyres and finished ivory goods totaling some 105 tons of elephant ivory were set ablaze as well as one ton of rhino horn, representing around 8,000 dead animals. It marked the largest ever burning of an ivory stockpile. “Kenya is making a statement that for us ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants,” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said before lighting the first pyre.
The decision to burn so much ivory has been the subject of much debate in recent weeks. Some critics have said that the estimated $150 million that the ivory is worth could have been used to protect Kenya’s wildlife. But Kenya’s leaders have said that the whole point is to emphasize ivory should not have any commercial value.
Noted conservationist and politician Richard Leakey recently explained to Scientific American the logic behind the burn:
“My feeling is that many people who are buying this ivory in China and elsewhere simply don’t know what it is doing to elephants. Maybe they think that it is coming off elephants that have died of natural causes. When Kenya burns $100 million worth of ivory, they’ll say, ‘What the hell was that about?’ It will help open their eyes to what is actually happening.”
Kenya has been pushing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora for a complete ban on ivory sales. Although selling African elephant ivory has been banned since 1989, some one-off sales are permitted allowing some countries to make money from the tusks of elephants that died from old age or had to be killed by park rangers, among other reasons.
Despite global condemnation of the ivory trade, demand for the product across Asia, particularly China, has not waned. More than 100,000 African elephants were killed between 2010 and 2010, according to researchers. There are now fewer than 500,000 elephants in Africa, down from around 1.2 million in the 1970s. And the rhinos are in far worse shape with only around 30,000 across Africa.