This Saturday will see the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) set fire to its entire ivory stockpile, in what will be the largest ivory burn in history. Around 105 tonnes (115 tons) of the stuff will be set ablaze in Nairobi National Park as a symbol that the slaughter of elephants and the illegal trade of their tusks is simply unacceptable and is rapidly driving the majestic animals closer to the brink of extinction. The President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, as well as the conservationist Richard Leakey, current chair of the KWS, will oversee the burning of the tusks.
The idea is to render the ivory entirely economically useless, as well as to show the world the nation’s commitment to the conservation of the iconic species. In addition to the masses of ivory set to be destroyed, they will also set fire to over a tonne of rhino horn, as well as other illegal wildlife products seized by the KWS over the years. Yet the grand gesture hasn’t been universally praised, with critics coming out against the mass destruction.
The burn will destroy over 25,000 pieces of ivory, thought to represent the death of at least 8,000 African elephants, and has been confiscated by the KWS over a period of around 25 years. The amount being set alight on Saturday will be more than all ivory burns performed globally combined since 2011. While Kenya has performed such ceremonies before, and was, in fact, the first nation to do so in 1989 when the international trade in ivory was first outlawed, this burn is the largest ever conducted, thought to be worth a staggering $100 million.
But this incredible value that is to literally go up in smoke could, some argue, be used to fund conservation efforts to help prevent more elephants being gunned down and having their ivory hacked off. The problem with this argument is that even if Kenya did want to benefit from the slaughter of elephants, something which it is clearly trying to stop, it wouldn’t be able to anyway.
The international trade in ivory is still illegal regardless, and so even if they were to withdraw from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates the trade, all other nations are still signatories and so wouldn’t be legally allowed to buy it. This then feeds into another argument against the burning of ivory, in that it might all just be a massive ruse for the stockpiled tusks to enter the black market via the back door.
Some claim that the corrupt officials and politicians simply want it to look like they are burning tens of tonnes of ivory that has been removed from the market, when actually they are only burning a small fraction of the stuff while secretly carting the rest off to be sold under nefarious conditions. It’s hard to know if there is any genuine merit in this assertion without any actual evidence that it has happened before, but presumably, the act of burning ivory is a direct attempt to try and prevent this sort of behavior from corrupt officials.
In the weeks in the run up to the burn, the KWS has created a detailed catalog of all 25,000 pieces to be destroyed. They have labeled, photographed, and logged each and every tusk, including taking a sample from each to allow for DNA testing. This will let conservationists track exactly where the ivory originated, helping give a bigger picture in the fight against the poachers.