The history books on conservation were re-written yesterday in the Kenyan capital city of Nairobi, when President Uhuru Kenyatta set off the world’s largest ever ivory burn, destroying over 105 tons of blood ivory and over 1.5 tons of rhino horn previously kept in Kenya Wildlife Service strongrooms across the country.
Joined on stage by President Bongo of Gabon, home to the largest remaining population of forest elephant, he served notice to poachers, traders, middlemen, financiers and buyers that their days in Kenya were numbered. In a thinly veiled criticism of other elephant range countries he proposed they too destroy their ivory stocks and not become speculators on perhaps rising ivory prices, now that Kenya has put almost all of her ivory stock beyond economic use.
President Kenyatta also announced that at the upcoming CITES meeting in Johannesburg later in the year Kenya will table a proposal to unconditionally ban the trade of ivory, rhino horn and other wildlife products of endangered species and put elephants in particular on the CITES Index One.
Previously had the representative of French President Hollande announced that France will institute a complete ban on trade of ivory, a call echoed by President Obama’s representative, though the United States has some way to go in making a total ban on ivory trade stick given respective State laws.
The Kenya Wildlife Service Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Dr. Richard Leakey, in his speech dropped any pretence when he all but accused CITES to be part of the problem, leaving CITES Secretary General John Scanlon red faced and the audience in wild cheers of support.
Kenya has a history of ivory burns, the first one held at the same spot by then President Daniel arap Moi on 19th July 1989, when notably Dr. Richard Leakey was Executive Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service and tackled poaching head on during his term of office.
That burn was followed in July 2011 by President Mwai Kibaki in Tsavo East before President Uhuru Kenyatta followed suit with a smaller burn of 15 tons on the 03rd of March last year.
This makes Kenya the first country to ever burn a significant amount of blood ivory back in 1989 and yesterday propelled it to newfound fame for burning the largest stockpile ever of over 105 tons, keeping only a relatively small quantity in stock needed as evidence in ongoing court cases and some to be used in a museum as exhibits.
Notably has Kenya as the first country in Eastern Africa significantly tightened legislation when the new Wildlife Act was passed and it is understood that further amendments to strengthen the law are being planned. This poses a challenge to other EAC member states, like Uganda and Tanzania, to do likewise and in particular new member South Sudan fall in line and enact similar regulations and laws on the fast track.
Less than half a million elephants now remain in Africa where in particular in Tanzania under the regime of former President Jakaya Kikwete elephant poaching literally exploded when tens of thousands of elephant were slaughtered over the past decade with little visible action other than words. Whistle blowers faced severe repression at the time with the regime in a deny deny deny mode until the facts could no longer be hidden after game surveys established a drop in elephant population in the Selous to just 13.000 compared to the last count when nearly 70.000 elephant populated the world’s largest game reserve.
In fact did Tanzania for long attempt to sell off her ivory stock but was several times defeated in CITES meetings when the applications were voted down. It is only under the new President John Magufuli that real action began to take root with the arrest of several poaching kingpins and financiers of the bloody trade. Some of the harshest sentences ever were handed down with up to 30 year prison terms and million dollar fines for convicted individuals, several of them from China.
It is in fact China, something which was diplomatically not mentioned in the official speeches yesterday but was the constant topic of conversation in the tent among the attendees of the ivory burn, that unless the demand in China is killed off that the African elephant will face almost certain extinction.
While in 1989, after Kenya’s first ivory burn, the price of ivory fell from some 300 US Dollars per kilogram to less than 8 US Dollars per kilogram, was China at that time not a major consumer and buyer country but has since emerged as the world’s top importer of blood ivory.
Most of the global seizures of contraband cargo in transit are destined for China, but also Vietnam, and most individual arrested in African airports, in particular when in transit in Nairobi, are Chinese citizens.
There was broad consensus therefore among those spoken to prior, during and after the function, that unless China bans all domestic processing and possession of ivory and criminalizes all trade, Kenya’s gesture may have little impact on the overall trend. Demands were in fact repeatedly made to publish here the comparison that China must treat African elephant and other wildlife the very same way as they treat their revered national symbol, the Panda unless they risk being singled out over their reluctance to fall in line with global conservation standards just like they fell foul over their domestic treatment of opposition, human rights and the Tibet situation.
Elephant conservation groups in East Africa are now preparing to lobby the governments of Tanzania and Uganda to destroy their ivory stocks in not just solidarity with Kenya but to set a similar signal that they too will now end suggestions that they are potential speculators on the price of blood ivory and put similar quantities out of action to destroy supplies while working towards equally destroying the demand side.
The move has catapulted Kenya back into the global good books, overshadowing the often negative publicity the country receives from both ignorant and at times malicious international media with in particular CNN having played a most dubious role in the past when on one occasion they described Kenya as a ‘Hotbed of Terror’. That unwarranted and false statement brought about swift reactions from the Kenyan social media fraternity which then coined phrases like ‘Hotbed of Champions’ while portraying CNN as a ‘Hotbed of Errors’. As of yesterday can Kenya also rightly be described as a ‘Hotbed of Conservation’ since this massive ivory burn dwarves all past actions by other countries and will no doubt serve to help promote the country, and the region for that matter, as a major global safari and holiday destination.