On 20th July 2011 Kenyas President Mwai Kibaki set on fire nearly 5 tonnes of elephant ivory, with an estimated value of USD$16m.
This act was to be the most symbolic in the official launch of the Lusaka Agreement Task Force (LATF) African Elephant Law Enforcement Day. Though while those in attendance watched the ivory blacken and burn, helped by the hundreds of gallons of paraffin that it and the wood that formed the bonfire had been soaked in, there was a hollow feeling.
In addressing the invited guests, being made up of members of the Kenya Wildlife Service, respected conservationists, MPs, wildlife consultants, charity leaders and local community members, as well as members of the Press, the President stated that the burning demonstrated the continents determination to fight criminal networks.
We cannot sit back and allow criminal networks to destroy our common future. Through the burning of contraband ivory, therefore, we are sending a clear message to poachers and illegal traders in wildlife about our collective resolve to fight this crime in our region and beyond. President Kibaki.
There is no question that burning this ivory pyre sent a message, that Kenya and members of the Lusaka Agreement Task Force, are committed to trying to protect and conserve their elephants by trying to tackle the recent upsurgence in poaching for ivory throughout the Continent. After all, by burning this ivory with a value of almost $16m the message was that live elephants are worth far more to Africa than the worth of their teeth. However, what though of the rest of the continents ivory stockpile? As long as there is a market, and a demand for ivory, the poaching will continue, irrespective of ivory burning. Other Nations need to follow Kenyas lead and the world needs to open its eyes to the terrible truth that as long as there is a legal ivory trade, and a demand for ivory in the Far East, elephants will continue to be lost, impacting on Africa's lucrative tourism trade, and, indeed, impacting negatively on many other species, for elephants are the key to biodiversity in most African Protected Areas. The commercial value of ivory should not matter in order to conserve Africa's fast dwindling herds of elephants, their teeth must not be traded.
The ivory burned was part of a seizure in Singapore in 2002, which DNA testing showed came from Malawi and Tanzania. Close to 1.5 tonnes of this ivory was returned to Malawi and Tanzania apparently for "educational purposes", while the remainder was burned on 20th July. We were told at the event that Kenyas remaining stored ivory, estimated at 50 tonnes, will form the core of a new museum, also designed to be "educational" but the need to protect the elephant as a species is urgent and needs to be addressed now. One could perhaps argue that 50 tonnes of ivory is a little excessive to make such an educational point, when surely a few pieces of raw and worked ivory and graphic imagery would tell the entire gruesome story.
Imagine the media impact and message that would have been sent to poachers, traders and ivory buyers had the ivory pyre been made up of 55 tonnes of ivory, or had other African Nations with stockpiled ivory been convinced to burn some of their ivory too and been compensated for doing so! That would have sent the strongest possible message and would have made it crystal clear to all that Kenya stands totally opposed to the ivory trade and that as a Nation it demonstrates its desire to tackle this illegal trade with acts that are more than symbolic, but make a meaningful statement. The media coverage of such an event would have been immense, however as it was the actual event was well documented within Kenya and some other African Nations, though the International community remains sceptic, conversant with the endemic corruption that is rife in Africa. Sky News and BBC News simply made brief mention. However, the ivory burning has drawn new attention to the issue and now is the time for the International community to bring pressure to bear on the Consumer Countries of the Far East who are driving the ongoing slaughter of elephants in Africa through demand, some, like China, apparently putting out the myth that ivory is simply a tooth that has fallen out and which will rapidly be replaced by another and that ivory does not cost an elephant its life, and worse still, the life of all its dependent young. Numbers speak for themselves. At one time there were 3.1 million elephants in Africa. Today, at best there are less than 500,000 and elephants are dying every day to fuel the demand!
There was talk at the event about Kenyas Wildlife Bill and the new harsher penalties it will bring for poachers through tougher sentencing powers to Judges. MP Noah Wakesa stated at two separate events that he was committed to getting this Bill presented to Cabinet and from there before the Parliament for debate. This Bill has been in discussion for far too long, with delays arising for various political reasons. The tougher sentencing needs to be enacted now and we urge the honourable Minister to put his weight behind it and to give a directive to the Judiciary. Increased poaching of elephants for their ivory means we cannot wait, we must press for action now, before there are no elephants left to protect.
Demand for ivory has been growing, especially since the CITES approved legalised sales of ivory in 2008, which provided a smoke screen for the illegal trade and drove up both the demand and the price for ivory. Demand from Asia and China in particular is pushing up the price of ivory, as a growing affluent middle class seek to demonstrate their wealth by displaying ornamental ivory in their homes as well as the ever present demand of ivory to make hankos. Hankos are a stamp used to sign official documents and forms, instead of a signature. In today's age a pencil or pen can do the same thing.
The impact of this demand on elephant numbers is staggering and while it is impossible to know the exact numbers, the best estimates today state that some 36,500 elephants are being killed annually for their ivory. That means four elephants are being killed every hour to satisfy the ivory trade. With only 500,000 elephants left in Africa, it does not take a mathematician to know that without a global crackdown on the illegal trade, African Elephants will be eradicated from this earth in a generation!
We still have time to make a difference for the elephants living today and we must do everything we can to foster change in Kenya and other African Nations. Conservation groups are pressing Government Officials to recognise the extent of the problem and to act. Let us take a spark from the Ivory pyre and ignite the desire of all caring people around the world to act now to save the elephants.
Anti-poaching efforts must be supported in the field. DSWT is working very hard at the field level together with KWS to help tackle the poaching menace in Kenya's most important elephant Sanctuary, the Tsavo Conservation Area, which is the bastion of the largest single population of elephants left in Kenya. So we must not give up hope, the challenge is real, but the time for all to act is now.