Why burning valuable ivory?

I have been thinking about this topic for weeks…
My daughter asked me the question the other day, puzzling me.
I thought she knew better and I was appalled by my silly assumption and ignorance of her knowledge and perceptions.
So here are my thoughts…
I think I am decently qualified to talk about this very complex and very debated and controversial topic.
Why? I have a doctorate in Economics, with a thesis on “wildlife as a renewable resource: sustainable development and environmental conservation in Kenya”.
One of the main chapters of my thesis was the explanation of CITES, the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species.
No worries, I am not going to bore you to death with academics thinking, data quotes, etc.

I will simply tell you my story, hoping it can help to better understand this very important discussion.

Let’s start from what triggered my daughter’s question: the burning of 105 tons of ivory and about 1.5 tons of rhino horn, in Nairobi, on April 30th.
I promised no boring data, but please allow me to put things in prospective.
That ivory and rhino horn belonged to 6,500 elephants and 450 rhinos.

It takes nearly 22 months gestation to get on elephant into this World… Those 6,500 elephants came from 6,500 mothers which collectively took nearly 12,000 years to give birth to all these magnificent animals…
How about that…

Numbers can be confusing, but they help putting things in prospective…
Let me ask you to imagine this: 6,500 dead elephants are 13,000 tusks. Line them up together and you will have a path 20 km. long. Now imagine the bleeding from these tusks and you walking the path, if you have a fast pace of 5 km an hour it will take you four hours walk… in a trail of blood…

What I am trying to make you understand is that  ivory comes from an animal which has been killed. A very intelligent mammal to whom humans have been inflicting pain, panic, stress, shock… and then death…
Ivory is not an item which comes out of a factory.
It comes from a killed animal, killed through a machine gun, or a poisoned arrow, or a snare, or impaled in a trap…
That is what I would like you to imagine when you look at the below photos:



Photos by Lucrezia Belpietro

not a pile of dentine, not some inert material set to blaze in flames…

Picture those 20 km line of blood ivory.
Then imagine the paths walked by these 6,500 elephants during their lives, their survival from predators (until they met human poachers), their gathering at waterholes, playing together with their babies…
Imagine their life-full lives, the African sunrises they saw… the moonlight walks they took…

Now we can talk about the economics. Now that you understand these flames are the flames of 7,000 large mammals which no longer roam the African savanna…

When I was a Westerner (was, as I am now Kenyan and find very alien to consider myself a Westerner…) I was adamantly convinced that the future conservation of wildlife was intrinsically linked to adding value to the animal. In which sense? Simple: make sure the use of wildlife is economically productive and wildlife will be preserved, as it pays off to do so.

When in 1989 Daniel Arap Moi, then President of Kenya, set on fire ivory in Nairobi, I was saddened by what I then considered a wasteful destruction. How blind and ignorant I was…
It was a brave gesture and strong statement: we are not interested in economic gains from the sales of ivory, we want to protect our elephants (which were in desperate need of protection, having been annihilated from 168,000 to 15,000 in the previous 15 years!).
Back then, with my very Western eyes, I was thinking: “Game cropping? Hunting? Why not, if done viably, with the aim to dedicate vast wilderness to a sustainable wildlife population”.
Then I moved to Africa permanently… and I realized how presumptuous and impractical my thoughts were.
I have never witness systematic game cropping and hunting done properly and with sustainability as the ultimate end.

The 1989 ivory burn was minimal, a mere 12 tons, compared to the 105 tons burnt this year.
Yet it sent the right message.
CITES protected the elephant, ivory was not tradeable and the war on ivory poaching was won. Almost instantly (and thanks to the superb work of Dr. Leakey and his team of passionate Kenyans, making the amazing Kenya Wildlife Service).
Elephant population in Kenya was then on the raise, after 15 years of terrible decline.

Other African Countries kept “crying”, pretending their elephant populations had to be culled. Why do I say pretending? Well they had to be culled because those Governments made the choice of not having enough wilderness areas for their elephants population, therefore declaring an otherwise shrinking elephant continental population, redundant!
Their argument “let us sell our legal ivory to finance our conservation work” was unfortunately accepted.

When a quota of “legal” ivory was allowed into the market, poaching skyrocketed.
No one with intellectual decency can deny the correlation between the spiking of poaching and the allowed ivory trade.
And it has been like that in every instance of approved sales or even perception that a legal sale would be approved.

That is why I am not writing what is the value in $ of those 13,000 tusks…
Ivory does not have a value.
It must not have a value.
If we accept that it has a value, we accept that is tradeable.
It must not be tradeable, otherwise the remaining 400,000 African elephants will be soon gone.

Let me ask you a question, and it a serious one.
I have written these thoughts because of my daughter’s bewilderment on why precious ivory was destroyed.
Do you have a daughter? Do you have a son?
How would you feel if the Police Department would argue that they need to sell into the market the cocaine, heroine and whatever other nasty drug they confiscated, so they can finance their police activities?
You would ask if somebody in the Department is mentally ill, will you not?
Well, this is how I feel when we accept that elephants can be killed for their ivory so that we can finance their protection. It is simply insane.

By Luca Belpietro
Founder Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust