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Reflections by a Conservationist Watching the Burning of 100 Tonnes of Ivory

“As the smoke rises and the flames crackle, it is hard not to be swept away by the mixed emotions this spectre creates. It is hard not to think about the thousands of elephants that died to make this fire. It is hard not to wonder if there isn’t a better way to honor their lives than to make this funeral pyre and to turn these tusks into smoke and ash. But in the end, I am convinced it is the right thing to do for elephant conservation today.”

By Timothy H. Tear

Nairobi National Park, Kenya, April 30, 2016 — The fires are now lit on 100 tonnes of ivory, and as the plumes of smoke swirl into the grey skies, Kenya is turning up the heat to stop the trafficking of elephant ivory.

The attention this ivory destruction has created – with presidents and celebrities alike gathering to witness this somber event – ensures that this message will spread far and wide. This burn is designed to help galvanize African and global support to close all ivory markets. When the smoke clears from today, attention will turn to the 17th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Johannesburg in September. The countries gathering at CITES must take action to destroy any and all economic value for ivory.

The market that burns and crushes like the one in Kenya are aiming to shut down is often operated by the same people that traffic in illegal arms, drugs, and people as slaves. ©Paul Hilton for WCS
The market that burns and crushes like the one in Kenya are aiming to shut down is often operated by the same people that traffic in illegal arms, drugs, and people as slaves. ©Paul Hilton for WCS

That’s important to remember as you witness so much ivory and rhino horn going up in smoke.

This massive destruction of ivory, the largest burn of ivory ever, is more than just symbolism. To give some sense of the scale of this event – there are 11 massive piles of ivory held together by metal frames. The ivory and rhino horn has been well inventoried – 105 tonnes of elephant ivory and 1.5 tonnes of rhino horn. While watching the burn, you realize the ivory represents the poaching of at least 8,000 elephants. The primary goal behind ivory burns or crushes is to show the world that ivory only has value on elephants. Supporters of ivory destruction point to the need to prevent seized ivory from leaking back into the illegal market; and to reduce the logistic, financial, and security burden on countries (because storing large quantities of ivory is expensive and risky). Since 1989, when Kenya conducted the first public ivory burn, at least 21 nations have held 28 ivory burns and crushes.

 

Guard stands watch over one of 11 pyres of ivory in Nairobi National Park. A total of 105 tons of ivory were burned on April 30th. Credit: ©Paul Hilton for WCS
Guard stands watch over one of 11 pyres of ivory in Nairobi National Park. A total of 105 tons of ivory were burned on April 30th. Credit: ©Paul Hilton for WCS

The market that these burns and crushes are aiming to shut down is often operated by the same people that traffic in illegal arms, drugs, and people as slaves. It is not a nice market. And if we can’t stop the demand and trafficking, we are unlikely to stop the killing. One can’t help but wonder – are our efforts to stop the illegal wildlife trade working? When it comes to elephant ivory, we are seeing encouraging indications. The significant drop in the price of ivory in China over the past 18 months suggests strongly that the market – and the demand for ivory – is shrinking.

I want to feel hope as we all gather to watch these fires. But it is hard not to be conflicted by the mixed emotions this spectre creates. It is hard not to think about the thousands upon thousands of elephants that died to make this fire. It is hard not to wonder if there isn’t a better way to honor their lives than to turn these tusks into smoke and ash.

In 1989, Kenya held the first public ivory destruction event. Since then, the world has witnessed 28 ivory crushes and burns conducted by 21 nations. Timothy H. Tear ©WCS
In 1989, Kenya held the first public ivory destruction event. Since then, the world has witnessed 28 ivory crushes and burns conducted by 21 nations. Timothy H. Tear ©WCS

The seriousness of the threat that elephants face today in Africa jars me back to a sense of urgency and purpose. To solve this situation, there must be greater unity of effort. More of the world needs to wake up and join the cause to save these magnificent animals. It is important that we ban together with Kenya and the other ten countries that have signed up to the Elephant Protection Initiative or EPI. These EPI countries have committed to close domestic ivory markets; observe a moratorium on any consideration of future international trade for a minimum of 10 years (and thereafter until African elephant populations are no longer threatened); and agree to put all stockpiles of ivory “beyond economic use.” It is a significant commitment – and today Kenya showed the world in a graphic demonstration how it chose to put its massive stockpile “beyond economic use.”

Ivory burns such as this one do help highlight the plight of elephants; and so, when the crowds disburse and the fires burn out, I know these tusks are not being turned to ash without benefit and without honor. Especially, if we all do our part to help.

______________________

Timothy H. Tear is the WCS Executive Director, Africa Region. He was in Kenya today witnessing this historic burn. @WCSNewsroom To learn more about how to help elephants, go to 96Elephants.org.

Comments

  1. Eduardo Ferreyra
    Argentina
    May 2, 5:11 pm

    This is insane. 16,000 tusks from 8,000 elephants that died in vain. Everything went up in smoke. Terrible. Why didn’t them make elaborate monuments with those tusks and placed them in squares in all cities of Africa and in the western world to remind, every day, the crime of hunting elephants for their ivory.

  2. ValTaylor
    Australia
    May 1, 9:31 pm

    …and still they burn, as they will for days yet, not just a sorrowful tribute to the thousands of lives lost and the many many more affected (orphans, directionless herds, loss of breeding adults) but an ongoing wake-up call to the world. The ivory trade MUST be stopped. Again I urge you to read the article to explain why this was necessary and why using the tusks to sell ivory legally would simply escalate the problem as it did in the past.

  3. Michele
    CT, USA
    May 1, 5:51 pm

    8,000. 8,000 8,000. That is unfathomable. And so very sad. What has this world become

  4. Don
    United States
    April 30, 3:10 pm

    Whenever a government releases ivory to reduce prices, the legit ivory acts as cover for illegal ivory. Incinerate!