BY: CAROLINE ROLF
Saturday, April 30th brought together leaders from several African nations, including Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, hundreds of onlookers, experts and press to witness the burning of over $172 million in unlawful wildlife goods. However, as the ceremony in Nairobi National Park wore on and conservation groups displayed support, many commentators were quick to criticize the service, claiming it will only encourage poaching.
Some compared the burning piles of ivory to igniting mounds of money. Instead of burning the valuable ivory, why not sell it and use the profit to hire and train wildlife militia or aid local development? To support the sale of ivory would be to support the government’s role in the black market. The sale of ivory, for $2,100 a kilogram, and the trade of endangered species are illegal under CITES. Even if Kenya were not a part of CITES, the rest of the world abides by this agreement so there wouldn’t be any buyers. But why do the tusks have to be destroyed? Why not save them for the future?
“Kenya will keep seven tons of tusks — some weighing more than 50 kilograms — for research. Another 25 tons are stuck in litigation or being held as evidence in pending cases.”
The purpose of the ivory burning isn’t really about the flames and smoke, it’s about saving the innocent lives of elephants. Burning the towers of ivory is part of a larger initiative to abolish the demand for ivory and bring back value to the living creature. Let the economic value of elephants come from the tourism sector. Leisure tourism generates over KSH 200 billion for Kenya and sees that half a million people remain employed. If elephants and their natural ecosystems are maintained, tourism and its benefits are sustainable.
From another economic standpoint, wouldn’t a better alternative to burning ivory be to release the stockpile onto the market, driving down the price to put poachers and traffickers out of business once and for all? In reality, the relationship between pricing, supply and demand is often more complex than we understand it to be. What is clear is that lowering the price of ivory won’t necessarily put others on the market out of business it the demand and sales are on a steady incline. By releasing the ivory for sale, Kenya would be enabling the traffickers by expanding the market for them to exploit.
Will the ivory even burn? Some question if the ceremony was merely a hoax for the audience to watch the piles disappear as the ivory falls into the hands of corrupt leaders. It is true that extremely high temperatures over a long period of time are needed to destroy ivory, but the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has the technology to reduce the mountains of ivory to a pile of ashes. Aside from the technical aspects, Kenyans are familiar with corruption concerns. There have been cases of police officers involved in ivory trafficking. Burning the ivory is really the only way to keep it out of the hands of corrupt officials and preventing the chance to open up the legal ivory trade. The boundary is quite blurry between the legal and illegal ivory trades. As some is still legal, illegal ivory can easily be disguised for lawful trade. If all ivory is banned though, it will be much easier to catch traffickers of the precious tusks.
The ivory burning has also been considered as another example of an African country giving into the pressures from western society. Foreign conservation experts would be pleased by this “publicity stunt”, especially as Kenya is set to host the next wildlife conservation summit this year. In fact, it was 1989 when the first bonfire was lit by President Moi to gain support for the ivory trade ban that would follow that year. This first fire would stand as a creative but destructive power that we see today.
There is no clear economic solution that will stop ivory poaching and trafficking completely in order to save Africa’s elephants from going extinct. The supply and demand may simply exceed the elephant population, which stands at less that 500,000 presently. If nothing else, the illegal capture and trafficking of ivory is a question of morals. Elephants are intelligent, social and emotional beings, not the product of ivory. The only way to save Africa’s elephants is to remove ivory from the market for good. The solution needs to be politically driven instead of economically. By burning its ivory stock, president Uhuru Kenyatta and Kenya are showing leadership and calling on other countries to follow.