Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Kenya Ivory Burn

30 April 2016

Categories: Homepage News, Kenya News, Wildlife Trade News, Elephants Campaign News

On the day when Kenya burns 105 tonnes of seized ivory, Born Free president Will Travers explains the importance of this event.

"Twenty seven years ago, together with hundreds of others, I stood on an open patch of ground, a mile or so inside Nairobi National Park, Kenya, and watched the then President, Daniel arap Moi, lean forward, brandishing a flaming torch - and set fire to 12 tonnes of ivory.

The mastermind behind this symbolic act, Dr Richard Leakey, the Director General of the newly-formed Kenya Wildlife Service, looked on with appreciation. He knew that the images of burning crescent tusks would flash round the world, igniting, as never before, the debate - should commercial sales of ivory be permitted or should the ivory trade be banned.

A few months later, in Lausanne, Switzerland, the 100 or so Parties to CITES (the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) heard passionate arguments from both sides and ultimately concluded by more than a two-thirds majority that the international commercial trade in the teeth of elephants, that had caused Africa's wild elephant population to crash from around 1.3 million in 1979 to just over 600,000 10 years later, should end.

I thought we had won. All the hard work of so many individuals - Dr Leakey, the late Costa Mlay from Tanzania, prescient elephant counter Dr Iain Douglas Hamilton, my friends at the Environmental Investigation Agency, my colleagues at Born Free and so many others - had paid off. The slaughter, which caused some to describe Africa's savannahs and plains as 'the killing fields', was over.

Gradually, over the following years, elephant numbers in many of the worst affected parts of Africa began to stabilise and recover. CITES' attention moved to other species under threat due to our rapacious human appetite - blue fin tuna, the basking shark, Chinese tiger farms, the rhino.

But it wasn't over. During the mid-90s, siren voices began to whisper that recovering elephant numbers meant that a limited, strictly controlled ivory trade was once more viable. Those voices reached a crescendo at the 1997 CITES meeting held in Harare, Zimbabwe, where a strident Robert Mugabe, aided and abetted by a powerful cohort of 'sustainable use' partners, exhorted delegates to approve an 'experimental, one-off sale of stockpiled ivory from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana to Japan. The CITES Secrétariat assured one and all that each tusk from the near 50-tonne stockpile would be counted into a sealed container. They would remain under lock and key all the way to Japan where the ivory would be counted out again, thereby 'guaranteeing' that no illegal ivory was able to infiltrate the trade.

It was a ridiculous farce that entirely missed the point made by so many involved in elephant conservation in the field. Creating a legal supply – one-off or not - stimulates demand and encourages poaching by speculators banking on a further relaxation of the trade rules.

However, the outcome of that experimental sale, which actually took place in 1999, was inconclusive. The price of ivory, which had fallen to just a few dollars a kilo after the introduction of the 1989 ban, began to tick up. Poaching may have started to increase but the holocaust of the 1970s and 1980s did not materialise.

Emboldened, the pro-trade lobby, this time joined by the powerful and persuasive voice of South Africa, began to agitate for a second 'one-off sale' of stockpiled ivory.  At the 2002 CITES meeting in Santiago, Chile, they prevailed and it was agreed that the four African countries - Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia - would be permitted to sell over 60 tonnes of ivory to Japan and, this time, China.

However, I sensed that this time things would be different. China's massive economic growth had created a vast middle class with disposable income that, along with the purchase of cars and air conditioning units and all sorts of consumer items, they could spend, if they so wished, on ivory.

I put my concerns to the UK Minister responsible in the summer of 2008, just ahead of the CITES Standing Committee meeting at which she and others would approve the mechanics of the transaction and cause the trade to go ahead.

Flooding the market with what ended up being a total of 105 tonnes of ivory would, in the view of the British Government, 'go some way to satisfying demand, thereby reduce poaching'.

A few months later, China bought just over 60 tonnes of ivory at about $160 a kilo and Japan bought the balance.

Just a few months after that, it started.

Elephant poaching began again in earnest and seizures of illegal ivory took off.

No one can know for sure exactly how many elephants were killed in the years that followed but my best estimate is north of 200,000 - it could be more. For example, between 2009 and 2014, Tanzania alone lost over 60,000 elephants to poachers.

Far from 'going some way to satisfying demand', the second one-off sale seemed clearly to stimulate demand, a demand that, in my view, could not be met were all the elephants in Africa to be butchered.

As for 'flooding the market', the Chinese had no intention of doing that. Instead, having bought the ivory at auction for about $160 a kilo, the government sold it on to its state-run ivory carving industry at a rate of just 10 tonnes a year and at a premium of around $1,000 a kilo. Selling it at such a high price guaranteed just one thing - that poachers would continue to make a killing.

It took the world some time to catch up, to recognise what was happening, but by 2014, powerful voices were raised in concern.

Hilary and Chelsea Clinton, William Hague, the Presidents of Kenya, Gabon, Ethiopia, Botswana, Tchad, and many more. Born Free, the EIA, IFAW, the Humane Society of the United States, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Wildlife Direct, WildAid, Freeland, the EAGLE network and others had been joined by Princes William, Harry and Charles and their United for Wildlife. The poaching crisis was well and truly out of the shadows.

This time the sense of urgency was compounded by a new dimension. The work of Professor Sam Wasser and others, scrutinising the DNA of large ivory seizures, had deduced not only where most of the ivory originated from and the key smuggling routes, but that poaching on this scale could only be carried out by organised criminal syndicates. Evidence was emerging that these syndicates were associated with some of the most ruthless terrorist militia in the world - including al Shabaab, The Lords Resistance Army and Boko Haram.

This linkage elevated wildlife crime from a low level, low risk to a matter of national, regional and global security. Counter-terrorism agencies began to pay attention. The UN declared wildlife crime a 'serious crime' warranting a four-year custodial tariff. The US, the EU, the British government, all began to direct resources - financial, material and intelligence - towards this new threat. CITES stopped talking about plans for a future ivory trade and began contemplating the benefits of a comprehensive global ban once more - this time with no exceptions.

Today, Kenya stands, once more, at the forefront of ivory issues. The penalty for poaching elephants is now 10 years and the fines are truly punitive. Many hundreds of new Kenya Wildlife Service rangers have been recruited to provide additional protection across the country's mosaic of National Parks and Reserves. Dr Richard Leakey is once more in a position to wield his considerable influence in the wildlife sector as Chair of the Board of KWS.

And a different President, Uhuru Kenyatta, will, on 30th April 2016, raise a new torch and incinerate a staggering 105 tonnes of ivory in the biggest symbolic destruction ever to take place. The message is clear. Kenya (and many other countries) want nothing whatsoever to do with the ivory trade, not now, not ever.

This September, that message will be taken to the 182 Parties at CITES gathering in Johannesburg, South Africa. Once more, 27 years after the very first ivory burn and that momentous meeting in Lausanne, the future of the ivory trade and the fate of Africa's elephant will be decided.

I have been to every CITES meeting since 1989 and I have observed good people make good decisions as well as profoundly foolish ones. Once more I will observe the ivory debate. Once more I will report the decision of the representatives of billions of concerned citizens the world over who have twice made decisions that have resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of elephants. The question is: will they get it right this time or will future generations learn in their pre-school readers that E is both for Elephant and Extinct?"

Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906


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