Kenya’s Massive Ivory Burn Should Light A Fire Under Us All

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On April 30, Kenya’s government lit a historic bonfire. The pyre was fueled by the tusks of more than 10,000 poached elephants, ivory valued at more than $100 million, and the horns of poached rhinos, valued at $2 billion. While ivory burns and crushes have taken place before, none have ever reached this magnitude. The burn of this massive stockpile of confiscated wildlife products is meant to send a crystal clear message to poachers:

“Kenya is making a statement that for us ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants,” said Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Kenyatta’s statement, and the symbolic statement of the pyre, could not come at a more important time for the African elephant. Ninety-six elephants die a day to fuel an illegal industry that sees their tusks turned into idols, trinkets, jewelry, and home decor. The rate is unsustainable and, if it continues, we could easily witness the extinction of the species within 10-20 years. Rhinos, if it’s possible, are doing even worse. In 2011, the Western black rhino was declared extinct thanks to poaching, and all five remaining rhinoceros species are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Last year saw the highest number of poached rhinos in two decades, an increase that suggests we may have only 10 years before they become as mythical as unicorns. But sadder. Because they, and the elephants, are here now, and we as humans have the power to save them.

The bonfire isn’t just sending a message to poachers, it’s sending a message to the planet. Ivory poaching hasn’t ended. This isn’t just a problem relegated to the ’80s, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) saw 100,000 animals being killed per year and introduced a ban on the international trade of ivory. This is a problem that has simmered, resurged, and is indeed running rampant, despite its illegality.

Today, a pair of tusks might fetch $20,000 on the black market, making them worth more than 10 times the average annual income in some African countries. And so, the burn.

There are some that would argue against the medium of the message. “Why burn the ivory?” they might ask. “It’s not going to bring the animals back. They’re already dead!” The implication is that the ivory should be sold, with profits put back into conservation efforts. Others suggest that the market simply be flooded with the unprecedented amount of ivory, driving down the price, and giving today’s living elephants a fighting chance. But neither of those approaches would make such a dramatic, global, headline grabbing statement and statements can be important. (This one is.)

Sure, flooding the market would bring the price down for a time, and perhaps slow the immediate rate of killing, but it would also create new customers. China is home to the largest ivory market in the world; the product is seen as a sign of wealth and prosperity. As such, ivory is an aspirational product. An ivory statue or trinket placed in the home is a status symbol, a sign that you’ve “made it,” a way to show off and proclaim one’s wealth. China’s burgeoning upper-middle class is buying the product faster than elephants are being born; a sudden drastic drop in price might stop poachers, but it will more than encourage buyers who once thought the price of ivory too dear. Once in the home, the piece is no longer being valued as an integral part of an animal, a body part, but as an object of beauty separate from that animal. It encourages a line of thinking that the burn seeks to eradicate — that ivory is in fact a valuable product, rather than a body part — and encourages continued consumption.

Why stop at one piece? Why not buy more?

There would be, too, the uncomfortable dissonance inherent in the very people attempting to protect the elephants putting the ivory back into the market. To do so would be to essentially acknowledge the ivory’s worth as a product. Said Rob Brandford, the UK director of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, “People talk about the value of the ivory to be destroyed; however, its true value is only to the elephant from which it was taken.”

Once the ivory supply flood shrunk back down to a trickle — and it would, because China is seeing no shortage of buyers — the killing of African elephants would resume. The solution would be no solution at all. It would be a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.

The value of the elephant as a species is the crux of the matter at hand. Even if the ivory — or any illegally obtained animal product — were to be sold, and profits donated to conservation programs, it would be at a longterm detriment to the species’ existence. The wholesale killing of an animal for one part of its body is not sustainable. Elephant ivory and rhino horns are not renewable resources. Once they are gone, they are gone, and then, so too, is that wildly lucrative black market income so attractive to poachers.

What is a sustainable resource? The animals themselves. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust released a report in 2013 that found a living elephant is worth more than $1.6 million in ecotourism opportunities. People from all over the world travel to Sub-Saharan Africa to go on safari and witness the “Big Five.” Ironically, the Big Five received their name from white hunters in the 19th and 20th centuries; the buffalo, lion, rhino elephant, and leopard were considered the five most challenging animals to bag, and thus, the most highly prized. While the name still stands, its connotations have shifted. Today, the Big Five are prized subjects for photographers, who are shooting photos rather than guns.

What will become of Africa’s ecotourism industry without elephants? A better question might be, what will become of the elephant habitat entirely? The landscape as it exists, the grasslands made familiar to us through photographs, documentaries, and The Lion King, exist because of elephants. They are the architects of Africa, literally shaping their environment, and creating rich habitats for other species to survive and thrive in. As they feed, they open up woodlands, create and maintain savannas, clear pathways, and disperse seeds. Their world, and the way we see it, is what it is because they exist. If in the next 10 to 20 years we lose this species, the effects on Africa’s ecotourism industry and its ecology will be catastrophic. How does one go on safari without grasslands? How does a cheetah hunt without them? Africa’s wild spaces will be irrevocably changed in the absence of this iconic species.

If we lose elephants, we stand to lose much more.

So what can be done? If ivory pays as well — it does, well enough to ensure that people are willing to risk death to obtain it — then it stands to reason that people must be offered another option. An option that is attractive, and sustainable.

Consider the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, a groundbreaking model for community conservation. The award-winning Conservancy “works as a catalyst and model for the conservation of wildlife and its habitat. It does this through the protection and management of species, the initiation and support of community conservation and development programs, and the education of neighboring areas in the value of wildlife.” By working “closely with its neighbors,” Lewa ensures that “the conservation of wildlife goes hand in hand with community development.”

The community-run reserve recognizes animals as a continuing, sustainable source of income, and empowers locals by offering agency, education, health care, and enterprise opportunity, while combating poverty — work that earned it recognition from the World Responsible Tourism Awards in 2014.

It’s a model that suggests a different path, one in which the lives of both humans and animals are valued, and recognizes that we are capable of coexisting and helping each other thrive.

Inspired? Ready to join the cause?

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