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Monday, April 25, 2016

Burning Ivory alone will not save the elephant

Africa has the largest population of charismatic, wild large mammals left on the planet. These include, elephants, tigers, lions, and rhino. But this wild heritage is now on the precipice, threatened with extinction on a scale unprecedented in modern history.

On April 30th 2016, President Kenyatta will set 105 tones of ivory on fire at Nairobi National Park. About a year ago, Kenyatta burned 15 tones of ivory. This will be the fourth time a Kenyan president is lighting up ivory stockpiles. Mwai Kibaki burnt over five tones of ivory in 2011. In 1989, former president Moi ignited 12 tones of ivory.

The timing of the April 30th burn will coincide with the next wildlife conservation summit, which will be held in Nairobi, and the whole world will be watching.  Hence, by incinerating ivory, Kenya is saying to the world that we will never profit from ivory. Moreover, burning ivory is a highly robust political statement of laudable intent.

Opinion about burning ivory is mixed. Critics think ivory burning does not make economic sense and will do nothing to save elephants or rhinos. Those who support ivory burning argue that incinerating stockpiles will eliminate the demand for ivory and enhance the value of living elephants bearing tusks. Enthusiasts of burning insist that there is a direct conservation benefit to destroying ivory stockpiles. 

Poaching, which is the method by which criminals and their acolytes get their hands on ivory is nothing new in our part of the world. Ivory trade is hugely lucrative. As one would expect highly sophisticated criminal syndicates run poaching, and more often than not are enabled by highly connected public officials. In South Africa for example, poachers use GPS, helicopters and semi-automatic weapons to track and kill elephants.

An incisive report “Ivory’s Curse: The Militarization and Professionalization of Poaching in Africa” published in 2014 claimed that poachers enjoy ‘official’ protection and cover to facilitate killing and trafficking of ivory. According to the report, the enablers of poaching are deeply entwined with runaway corruption in government, and highly connected public officials dominate poaching and the transport chain up to the point the ivory is loaded into a shipping container.

We must put ivory stockpiles beyond economic use. But like the war against official corruption this will demand every ounce of political will we can muster. One kilogram of ivory is worth $3,000 so the stakes are high and the battle will be bruising and long.

However, we must not forget the real threat to elephants and other wild biodiversity, the decline of the ecological integrity of our park and reserve system. A majority of our parks isolated islands of wilderness, which do not contain the necessary habitat resources to support viable populations of large mammals like elephants and rhinos.

What is the point of saving elephants only to sequester them in isolated, ecologically unviable parks marooned in a sea of unplanned human settlements? We must bring back sound ecosystem science to Kenya Wildlife Service.

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