On 30 April Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta will set fire to 105 tonnes of ivory in Nairobi National Park. This article explains why it’s the right thing to do.
By burning almost its entire ivory stockpile, Kenya is sending out the message that it will never benefit from illegal ivory captured from poachers or seized in transit. However, as the day of the burn approaches, commentators and experts have been lining up to condemn it. Some of the objections put forward are based on wrong assumptions; some deserve serious consideration.
Here I summarise four of the most frequent arguments being made against the burn and explain why, in my view, they are wrong.
Argument against 1: It’s a waste
For some people, burning ivory makes as much sense as burning banknotes. Ivory is valuable they say: instead of burning ivory let’s sell it and use the proceeds to fund wildlife conservation or support local development initiatives.
Supporters of this viewpoint must recognise that the ivory could not be sold now even if we wanted to, unless we expect our government to enter the black market. Ivory sales are illegal under the terms of CITES, the international convention on the trade in endangered species, to which Kenya is a signatory.
Even if Kenya left CITES, there would be nobody to sell to as the rest of the world abides by this convention which has banned international trade in ivory. Okay, the argument goes, but that doesn’t mean we have to destroy it. Maybe the situation will change in the future. Let’s keep the stockpiles, as savings for a “rainy day”.
This argument misinterprets the purpose of the ivory burn. It isn’t really about burning ivory at all: it’s about saving elephants. Burning the stockpiles is part of a wider conservation strategy to eliminate demand for ivory and put value instead on living elephants.
The economic value of elephants, with their ivory attached, is enormous. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, leisure tourism generated KSh 238 billion for the Kenyan economy in 2014, while more than half a million people are employed, directly or indirectly, by the tourism sector. These benefits are sustainable, providing we safeguard our tourism attractions, including elephants and the natural ecosystems they help to maintain. In two lists I found online, national parks and reserves featured as 7 out of Kenya’s 12 top tourist attractions in one list and 7 out 10 in another.
By contrast the value of all the ivory to be burned next week has been estimated at KSh 3 billion, at black market prices. The income that could be generated from a one-off legal sale—maybe, sometime in the future—would be much less than this.
From an economic perspective, if burning ivory is the surest way to save elephants—as I believe it is—then it’s child’s play to work out what we should be doing. And that’s without taking account of the incalculable non-economic value of elephants as part of our national identity, and as a source of inspiration and delight for Kenyans today and for future generations.
Last year, we took Nairobi school children from the slums of Kibera on a visit to Amboseli National Park. The joy on their faces as they watched wild elephants in their natural habitat was beyond price.
Argument against 2: It won’t work
Over-simplistic economic arguments like these are dangerous. The relation between supply, price and demand is much more complex than we are sometimes led to believe, and is often hard to predict. But we know that lowering the price of a product won’t necessarily put anyone out of business if it stimulates demand and increases the volume of sales.
Think of mobile phones. Smart producers realised it was in their interest to reduce prices to tap into the vast potential market in Africa. The potential market for ivory is just as huge. The current population of China stands at 1.37 billion people—and rising—and surveys indicate that more that 80% of them would like to own some ivory. By releasing ivory for sale we will be playing into the hands of the traffickers by opening up more of this market for them to exploit.
Let’s be clear: there are no economic solutions that will stop the poaching and ivory trafficking in time to save Africa’s elephants. With the total population of African elephants standing at less than 500,000—and falling—the gap between the potential supply and potential demand is simply too wide.
The only way to save Africa’s elephants is to remove ivory altogether from the market. In other words, we need a political solution and not an economic one. There are two complementary ways to do this: one is to attach a stigma to buying the product, and the other is to make it illegal. These approaches have been adopted with some success to shut down the trade in whale products and animal furs.
The ivory burn is a highly visible political statement of intent. As such it can make an important contribution towards raising awareness of the issues, stigmatising the purchase of ivory and galvanising global support for a total trade ban.
As part of this effort, the Kenyan and U.S. governments, conservation experts, media representatives, and wildlife supporters from around the world will come together on Saturday, April 23, 2016 in a prelude to the ivory burn to discuss wildlife issues and commit to saving the world’s elephants and rhinos.
Join us in the conversation by using hashtags #LightAFire and #Tweet4Elephantsto share your thoughts on why wildlife is #WorthMoreAlive.
Argument against 3: It’s a trick
Some people have questioned whether the ivory will in fact burn. Maybe the whole event is an elaborate piece of theatre, to make the ivory “disappear” from the stockpiles and into the hands of corrupt officials and politicians?
It’s true that it’s hard to incinerate ivory: very high temperatures over a prolonged period are needed. But Kenya is an expert in this. We have the technology and the ivory stockpile will be reduced to a pile of ashes. Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) director general Kitili Mbathi has explained that ten tonnes of firewood and more than 10,000 litres of fuel will be used to burn the ivory.
Aside from the technical issues, underlying this argument are valid concerns about corruption. This is something that Kenyans are all too familiar with. There are plenty of cases where corrupt police officers and officials have been found to be complicit in ivory trafficking. But this is an argument in favour of burning the ivory, as the only really secure way to keep it out of the hands of corrupt official officials and their criminal associates—forever.
Corruption is also one of the main reasons why it would be a disaster to relax the CITES ban and open up the legal ivory trade. We know that corruption isn’t just an African problem. The Panama Papers revealed the existence of a global industry devoted to turning the proceeds of criminal activities into profits of legitimate businesses. Similar methods are used routinely by traffickers to convert poached ivory into “legal” ivory.
Studies show that the boundary between the trade in legal and illegal ivory is highly porous. As long as some trade in ivory is legal, it will provide a cover for illegal ivory trade because it is impossible to distinguish between legal and illegal ivory.
If all trade in ivory is banned, authorities will know that any ivory found on sale is illegal. It will make the job of cracking down on the ivory traffickers much easier. By relaxing the ban, we will be playing into their hands
This is what happened when some African countries persuaded CITES to allow a one-off sale from ivory stockpiles in 2009, triggering an explosion of demand from China and other South-east Asian countries.
Argument against 4: It’s foreign interference
Some commentators have presented the ivory burn as an example of an African country capitulating to pressure from “outsiders”. According to this narrative, the whole thing is a publicity stunt arranged to please foreign conservationists, in particular who are funding the Giants Club.
The Giants Club is a forum for elephant protection that brings together African Heads of State, global business leaders and conservation experts. Kenya is hosting its next wildlife conservation summit, which will coincide with the burn.
This accusation is unfounded: nothing could be further from the truth. It’s true that other African nations that are members of the Giants Club have committed themselves to the “Elephant Protection Initiative”. But this involves nothing more than a promise to put ivory stocks “beyond economic use” for a limited period of 10 years—one eighth of an elephant’s lifetime.
The ivory burn is an authentic Kenyan tradition. We invented it, when in 1989 the first bonfire lit by President Moi also ignited support for the ban in ivory trade that was approved by CITES later that year. That first bonfire demonstrated the power of fire as a creative, as well as a destructive force.
By burning its ivory stockpiles now, Kenya is once again showing leadership and raising the bar for other countries. Although nothing undiplomatic will be said at the Giants Club Summit, the ivory burn sends a clear message: if we are serious about saving Africa’s elephants, partial measures are simply not enough.