What Does Kenya's Ivory Burn Mean For Ivory Bans?

Massive towers of elephant tusks sit outside Nairobi, a funeral pyre for thousands of elephants who once roamed the savanna. However, these tusks won’t end up on the black market, hidden in chili powder or vats of butter and filtered into domestic markets in China, Southeast Asia and the United States—they’ll be burned on April 30th when Kenya torches over 100 tons of raw and carved ivory. The public destruction of ivory stockpiles is a dramatic statement demonstrating a commitment to fighting wildlife trafficking. Kenya is eliminating any chance that this ivory could ever reenter the market, and is reinforcing that elephants are worth more to them alive.

Vulcan believes there is a future for elephants only when ivory no longer holds economic value as a consumer product. This massive ivory burn ensures that this ivory will never reach the domestic marketplace—where illegal and legal ivory sit next to each other on shelves, cleverly disguised and only distinguishable to law enforcement through DNA or isotope analysis. This is why confiscated stockpiles must be eliminated, and global and domestic ivory bans must be enacted and enforced. In 2009, a CITES sanctioned one-off sale of ivory stockpiles triggered a demand explosion in Asian markets, which reverberates to this day. As long as ivory can find a home in legal domestic markets, elephant deaths will continue—96 elephants a day, one every 15 minutes.

Destroying ivory stockpiles is just one battle in this multi-front war against extinction. The fight is about to get a little bit easier for elephants and those who want to protect them. Armed with fresh data from the Great Elephant Census, scientists and conservationists can muster the political action necessary to protect elephants from the illegal ivory trade. The power of data combined with public displays of political will to protect elephants can move mountains. In 1979, Sir Iain Douglas Hamilton’s first pan-African survey informed the 1989 CITES ivory ban, which occurred just months after Kenya’s first public ivory destruction. As Dr. Paula Kahumbu of Wildlife Direct said in her Guardian editorial:

“The ivory burn is an authentic Kenyan tradition. [They] invented it, when in 1989 the first bonfire lit by President Moi also ignited support for the ban in ivory trade.”

The Great Elephant Census wants to see this same outcome in 2016. Our final report, due later this year, will provide world leaders with the data telling us where elephant populations are in peril. So, once again, we’ll see data and dramatic public displays like Kenya’s ivory burn working together to move the needle. It is our hope that what follows will be action; especially in legal ivory markets and countries without domestic ivory bans. Whether it is stronger enforcement in transit cities or enacting domestic bans in top consumer markets, including China, Hong Kong and the United States; it is our hope that more countries will follow Kenya’s lead and commit to taking steps that will make it impossible for confiscated ivory to ever end up back on the market.

On Saturday, Kenya and her partners in conservation, including Vulcan, will stand vigil for the thousands of Africa’s dead elephants. We hope that, from their ashes, action will rise. Without a total ban, without tackling the demand for ivory in consumer countries, in another decade Kenya will once again have to burn hundreds of tons of confiscated ivory, until the day there are no elephants left to poach.  

In 2014, one of Kenya's most iconic tuskers, Satao, was discovered in Kenya gunned down and mutilated. It took weeks to positively identify him. He and his brothers and sisters remind us what is at stake.

In 2014, one of Kenya's most iconic tuskers, Satao, was discovered in Kenya gunned down and mutilated. It took weeks to positively identify him. He and his brothers and sisters remind us what is at stake.

Join the conversation around the ivory burn on social by following @ElephantCount, @VulcanInc and @RacingXtinction. Share this image of Satao and use the hashtag #WorthMoreAlive and #LightAFire to show your support.