Burning ivory is nothing new. Since the President Daniel Arap Moi lit a 20ft pile of tusks at the Nairobi National Park in April 1989, many others around the world have followed suit, some choosing to crush rather than burn. Moi’s successors as President have also maintained a tradition of occasionally staging ivory burns to send a message that ivory has no value beyond the life of an elephant.
Tomorrow, President Uhuru Kenyatta will do him one better, tagging not just the second burn of his Presidency but also the biggest of them all – he will incinerate almost all of Kenya’s ivory stockpile, some 105 tonnes as well as another 1.5 tonnes of rhino horn. This he will do before an assembled audience of other African Heads of State, Hollywood celebrities and, perhaps most importantly, global media. Once again Kenya will shine as a paragon of elephant conservation.
Only it isn’t. In fact, Kenya has kept burning ivory while burying its elephants. While nowadays the conservation community is wont to heap accolades on the Kenyan government for its stated commitment and actions to halt the poaching of our wildlife, just two years ago, they were singing an entirely different tune. Veteran conservationist, Richard Leakey, who last year made a celebrated return to the Kenya Wildlife Service as the Chairman of its Board, had in 2014 warned that poaching was “a national disaster” and that known ringleaders were operating with “outrageous impunity”.
While many point to corruption among the law enforcement agencies as the source of this impunity, few eyebrows are raised when it is revealed that decorative ivory is to be found in State House and specifically in the President’s and First Lady’s offices. There were no murmurs of discontent last year when the Presidential Strategic Communication Unit released a photograph of President Kenyatta receiving US Secretary of State, John Kerry, at State House Nairobi, flanked by two elephant tusks.
In an oped in the Guardian, Paula Kahumbu, another strong and necessary voice for elephant conservation, writes that the ivory burn is not “really about burning ivory at all: it’s about saving elephants … eliminate demand for ivory and put value instead on living elephants”. In other words, any economic value that may be gained now or in the future from the sale of ivory is not worth the extinction of the species.
But this is an argument that the government itself has undermined. When agreeing to the routing of the standard gauge railway through the country’s wildlife sanctuaries, KWS’ Leakey said that although “ideally there should be no transportation in a national park," the plan was a "pragmatic" balance of wildlife and development concerns. In this case, building through the park as opposed populated areas will save money. The deal cemented the idea that wildlife is fair game when it stands on the path of “development”, a sharp contrast to the rhetoric surrounding tomorrow’s event.
Finally, there is the question of who actually benefits from the conservation of elephants. It is not enough to simply burn ivory to send messages to the outside world. Elephant conservation should not be about preserving them for tourists or burnishing politicians’ credentials or the government’s image. There needs to be a concerted effort to engage Kenyans and especially the communities bearing the cost of living alongside these animals, both in terms of lives and livelihoods, while enjoying few of the benefits.
In his famous “bunny huggers” speech at the 1997 CITES conference in Harare Leakey linked wildlife conservation to the struggle for “accountability, justice and opportunity”. He noted that Europeans do not seem to have suffered from the extinction of species such as mammoths or woolly rhinoceros. “Will Africans miss the elephant or the rhino if these too disappear?” he asked. As the Kenyan government and the global conservation movement prepare for their moment in the spotlight, it is a question they would do well to ponder.