, NAIROBI, Kenya Apr 30 – Eleven giant pyres of elephant tusks are going up in flames in Nairobi as Kenya destroyed its vast ivory stockpile, the largest to be burnt by any country in the world.
The ivory expected to burn for several days was torched by President Uhuru Kenyatta, in the presence of President Ali Bongo from Gabon as well as representatives from various countries and organisations–including Hellen Clark who is the United Nations Secretary General-designate.
“No one and I repeat no one has any business trading in ivory for this trade means death. Death of our elephants and death of our natural heritage,” the head of state said, before he set the tusks on fire at the Nairobi’s national park.
All the leaders at the event had one message–the world must unite in the war against poaching to be able to protect the endangered elephant and rhinos.
President Bongo said poachers are a threat to national security and if not dealt with can easily morph into bigger threats such as terrorists.
“We are going to put you out of business and the best thing for you to do is to retire from your illegal activities,” he said.
Deputy President William Ruto said the burning of the ivory signifies Kenya’s commitment to preserve its heritage.
“Today marks a historic moment as we send the strongest message ever to poachers, traders and purchasers of ivory and rhino that their trade is worthless and valueless and evil,” said the Deputy President.
Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources Judy Wakhungu said the burning of the ivory symbolizes Kenya’s determination to preserve its heritage.
“They say Kenya’s ivory that we are burning represent 5 per cent of the international stockpile held in Africa both amount to 160 elephants. It is a disgraceful shame that this continues. We will burn our ivory but we hope every county in the globe will support Kenya in saying that never again shall we trade in ivory,” KWS chairman Dr Richard Leaky said.
The representatives from the US and France read messages from President Barack Obama and President Francois Hollande expressing their support for Kenya’s position on the protection of wildlife and the environment.
The Secretary General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Mr John Scanlon also spoke at the event.
Kenya was the first country to ever burn ivory when former President Daniel arap Moi set illegal stocks on fire in 1989. The action has been copied by many other countries including the United States.
The stockpile was burnt a day after President Kenyatta launched the Giants Club summit in Nanyuki where he declared that “To lose our elephants would be to lose a key part of the heritage that we hold in trust. Quite simply, we will not allow it.”
“We will not be the Africans who stood by as we lost our elephants.”
The bonfires will be the largest-ever torching of ivory, involving 105 tonnes from thousands of dead elephants, dwarfing by seven times any stockpile burned before.
Another 1.35 tonnes of rhino horn will also be burned, representing the killing of some 340 of the endangered animals.
– Shocking scale of slaughter –
Africa is home to between 450,000 to 500,000 elephants, but more than 30,000 are killed every year on the continent to satisfy demand for ivory in Asia, where raw tusks sell for around $1,000 (800 euros) a kilo (2.2 pounds).
The pyres prepared in Nairobi contain some 16,000 tusks and pieces of ivory.
Kenya has a long history of ivory burnings, spearheading a wider movement of public demonstrations across the world, but nothing on this scale before.
On the black market, such a quantity of ivory could sell for over $100 million, and the rhino horn could raise as much as $80 million.
Rhino horn can fetch as much as $60,000 per kilo — more than gold or cocaine.
But despite the staggering size of the piles to be burned, totaling some five percent of global stocks, the ivory represents just a fraction of the animals killed every year.
– ‘Extreme temperatures’ –
The ivory here seized from poachers and smugglers over several years — plus from animals who died naturally — is equivalent to just a quarter of the number of elephants massacred every year to feed demand in growing economies in Asia, eager for an elephant’s tooth as a status symbol.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the ivory trade in 1989.
Activists say destroying the stocks will put anti-trafficking efforts at the top of the agenda at the next CITES conference.
China, which has tightened its laws on ivory imports, allows the resale of ivory bought before the 1989 ban, but activists say the trade in legal ivory acts as a cover for illegal imports and call for a complete ban on sales.
Safari guide Ian Barton, who works in Kenya’s world-famous Maasai Mara reserve, said he believed the destruction “will put pressure on Hong Kong and China,” who he said “have been hiding behind their old stocks of ivory for way too long.”
Ivory itself does not burn, and so the fire will be fuelled by a mix of thousands of litres of diesel and kerosene injected though steel pipes buried in the ground leading into the heart of the pyramids.
A former film special effects specialist turned pyrotechnic expert has organised the fuel-fed fires, drawing on his expertise to ensure the stockpiles burn as planned despite torrential rain, and the area around the ivory burn a muddy quagmire.
– ‘Corruption, greed and incompetence’ –
Richard Leakey, Kenya Wildlife Service chief, promised the ivory piles “will burn, even if it snows”.
UN Environment Programme deputy chief Ibrahim Thiaw warned on Saturday that “extinction is already happening”, and said the burning demonstrated the growing efforts to stop trafficking.
But Kenyan media, which have covered multiple ivory burns ever since the first large pyre was torched in 1989, as well as the killing of elephants that continued unabated once the publicity event was over, appeared far more cynical.
All three main newspapers ran cartoons questioning the long term impact and motivation, pointing to the government’s accountability in allowing the animals to be killed in the first place, and warning that without tackling corruption, poaching would continue.
Local newspaper The Standard newspaper’s cartoon showed one image of the pyre on fire today, and another tomorrow with vultures marked corruption, greed and incompetence feasting on a freshly killed elephant.
[OLIVE BURROWS contributed to this article]