Kenya’s ivory burn will help shut down the trade worldwide


Kenya has achieved impressive results in reducing poaching significantly over the past few years. The number of elephants killed by poachers is down by 80% since the peak year in 2012 to only 88 in 2015. Deaths of rhinos have fallen from 59 in 2013 to just 11 in 2015.

This success is the result of a combined effort on many fronts. Key success factors include political leadership, improved intelligence and security on the ground in wildlife areas, more effective prosecution of wildlife criminals in the courts, and increased public awareness and support for wildlife conservation.

Despite these achievements there is no reason for Kenyans to feel complacent. Poaching continues unabated in several neighbouring countries, notably Tanzania, where elephant numbers have fallen by 60,000 in the past five years. Kenya’s port of Mombasa is still a major transit point for ivory poached in other East and Central African countries.

One of the root causes of the continuing poaching crisis in Africa is the growth of demand, especially from China and other Southeast Asian countries. Until people in these countries stop buying ivory, elephants in Africa will not be safe.

Kenyan policy is based on the appreciation that it is futile to attempt reduce demand for ivory using economic instruments. Kenya is committed to achieving a total global ban on trade in ivory, to stop all trade in ivory in perpetuity. The ivory burn is an integral part of the strategy to achieve this goal:

By burning its ivory stocks Kenya is putting its ivory stockpiles beyond economic use forever. The burn eliminates the danger that ivory from the stockpiles will fall into the hands of criminals and corrupt officials and sends a powerful message that Kenya will never profit from the remains of dead elephants. It is saying that, for Kenyans, elephants only have value when they are alive. The burn sets an example that can be followed by other countries that are committed to the same aims.

This dramatic gesture focuses the world attention on the problem and creates opportunities to raise public awareness of the issues. As a result more people will understand what is really at stake for elephants, the barbaric nature and increasingly industrial scale of elephant poaching, its links to organized crime cartels and terrorist organizations, and how ivory products are forever stained by the blood and suffering of the elephants from which they were stolen.

Social media events organized in advance of the burn have already reached tens of millions of people. On 23 April, more than 75 million people around the world engaged in a global conversation about the burn during our #LightAFire social media event in partnership with the US Embassy, NGOs and Kenya Wildlife Service. Since then, hundreds of people have come out to have their photographs taken at the ivory burn site to post on social media show their support for this historic event.

The aim of the burn is to stigmatize the purchase and use of ivory, so that it is seen as shameful and despicable. We want ivory to be shunned by consumers. This strategy was successfully in ending the fur trade in the 1960s and permanently eliminating demand for ivory from consumers in Europe and Japan at the end of the 1980s. It can be successful again in deterring Chinese consumers from purchasing ivory.

Within Kenya, the burn has played a crucial role in building and strengthening a national alliance in favour of wildlife conservation, to an extent that is probably unprecedented in any country in the world. Staff of WildlifeDirect have been busy almost non-stop in the last few weeks answering requests for radio, press and TV interviews in many different Kenyan languages to explain the purpose of burn to all Kenyans. Interest in wildlife-related programmes among TV viewers and TV stations has soared.

Government agencies, corporations in the private sector and civil society organizations have joined forces to support the ivory burn and denounce wildlife crime. The burn has stimulated a serious and informed national debate on how developmental aims can be achieved in ways that are compatible with—and benefit from—wildlife conservation.

On an international level, while Kenya will not criticize countries that are genuinely trying to reduce poaching by other means, it is committed to using diplomacy to build support for a global trade ban. The ivory burn, timed to coincide with the Giants Club Summit, is part of these diplomatic efforts. Kenya is “walking the talk” and establishing its credentials as a leader of global efforts to combat poaching and wildlife crime.

(Dr Paula Kakumbu is CEO of the NGO WildlifeDirect and an internationally renowned campaigner for elephants and justice for wildlife)

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