Kenya’s Fight Against the Ivory Trade
Today, on April 30, the government of Kenya burned 105 tons of seized elephant ivory and 1.35 tons of rhino horns, the biggest ever burning of wildlife contraband. Government officials have been assembling the ivory from an estimate of 6,000 to 8,000 poached elephants and horns from 450 rhinos into a dozen pyres. These captured tusks have been gathering dust but authorities decided to destroy them as a message to poachers.
President Kenyatta gave a statement on the burn, summarizing its purpose: “For us, ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants”.
The ivory is worth more than $100 million dollars on the black market, but that is nothing compared to its value while still on the elephant. Same goes for the rhino horns, they could raise as much as $80 million. Revenue generated from ecotourism is important to Africa’s economic development. Kenyan officials estimate that each elephant can generate more than 20 times the value of its ivory tusks (estimated at $20,000) over the course of its lifetime. A 2013 report found that the value could be even higher, at nearly $1.6 million or 80 times the price of the ivory the elephant carries. And despite today’s burning worth $100 million, it only represents just 5% of what is currently held in by African governments and a tiny fraction of what is circulating on the black market.
Kenya first burned ivory in 1989, under president Daniel Arap Moi. The burning is a symbol of its fight to protect its remaining elephant population, which has fallen 90%, from 168,000 to 15,000 in the past 15 years. Nearly 20 of such events have taken place in the past 27 years. More than a dozen countries have held similar public destructions of endangered animal products, including Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, Gabon, Philippines, United Arab Emirates, and United States. The previous largest record before today was held by Hong Kong after destroying 28 tons in 2014.
Burning seized ivory has become a highly public symbol of the fight to save the elephant from extinction but it is still a controversial method. It is Dr. Richard Leakey’s, the paleontologist and chair of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, hope is that burning would squash the value of ivory. Kenya is also appealing to other countries to follow and burn their ivory stockpiles but there is resistance. South Africa always refused to burn ivory and was planning to ask the United Nations to lift the ban on the domestic trade in rhino horn, which was later revoked. Botswana, which has the world’s largest elephant population, is vehemently opposed to burning the ivory, saying it devalues the animals in their citizens’ eyes. Environmentalists also argue that such a decision to destroy the supply would only increase demand.
Africa is in the midst of a poaching crisis, driven by demand in Asia for wildlife products. Approximately 75% of the illegal ivory makes its way to China, while Vietnam is the largest market for rhino horn. Updated elephant population estimates by the U.S. State Department hovers around 400,000, indicating that one in five elephants have been killed for their tusks during the past ten years. In central Africa specifically, 70% of the forest elephant population has been lost in the same time period. According to the Born Free Foundation, about 30,000 to 50,000 elephants each year were killed from 2008 to 2013 alone for their ivory. The rate of killing is outstripping the rate of births in Africa, causing numbers to dwindle.
Destroying ivory supplies aren’t the only move Kenya has made to fight against the illegal trade. Sniffer dog teams have been trained to find smuggled ivory. Since January, the dogs have led 18 busts of Kenya. In January, dogs found hidden ivory in the luggage of four passengers on the route to China. They also found more than 1,100 pounds of pangolin scales at Nairobi’s airport, as well as 200 live turtles at Julius Nyerere International Airport, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In their last bust in late March, one dog identified 18 pieces of raw ivory worth more than $60,000 at Nairobi airport in cargo headed to Bangkok.
Now, the Kenyan Wildlife Service new sniffer dogs are better trained and handled than the ones used previously at Nairobi’s airport. These dogs have been trained by Will Powell, the African Wildlife Foundation’s conservation canine director, at a center in Arusha, Tanzania. With 20 years of experience of training dogs to detect landmines and explosives in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Powell says that training dogs to sniff out biological material such as ivory isn’t very different from detecting explosives and narcotics.
The key is positive reinforcement. “The dogs are taught to associate the smell of ivory and other target odors with receiving a toy and lots of praise,” Powell explains. “The dogs are conditioned to sit when they smell ivory, and then as soon as they’ve sat, they receive their toy and have loads of fun.” They have gotten so good at sleuthing that not even an ivory object as small as a ring or bangle eludes them, “a testament to how well trained these dogs and their handlers are”.
Kenya will also push for a global ban on elephant ivory sales at the United Nations wildlife conference in South Africa from June 27 through 30. There, President Kenyatta will announce his plan to stamp out poaching and put ivory out of circulation for good with support from several other African countries. “This will ensure African elephants are accorded the highest level of protection,” he said. “To lose our elephants would be to lose a key part of the heritage we hold in trust. Quite simply: we will not allow it.”
Plans to shut down all legal ivory trade has been occurring for more than a year. In November 2014, representatives from 25 African nations signed the Contou Declaration, a joint statement calling for a global ivory ban.
Earlier this week, 27 member states of the African Elephant Coalition, including Kenya, Gabon, Uganda, and Botswana who have more than half of Africa’s remaining elephants, submitted five proposals for the upcoming CITES conference. The proposal calls for relisting all remaining elephant populations to the highest level of international protection, effectively shutting down all legal sales of ivory.