NAIROBI — On Saturday, Kenyan wildlife officials set more than 105 tons of elephant and rhino ivory on fire — a display intended to combat the growing threat of poaching.
The market for ivory across much of Asia, and particularly China, has remained strong in recent years, driving poachers in sub-Saharan Africa to kill an enormous number of vulnerable species. The ivory burn is intended as a condemnation of that booming market. By some measures, the ivory being incinerated in Nairobi would be worth more than $150 million.
“Kenya is making a statement that for us ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants,” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said before lighting the first of the pyres, Reuters reported. The ivory comes from about 8,000 animals.
Between 2010 and 2012, poachers killed more than 100,000 African elephants, according to research from a team led by George Wittemyer of Colorado State University. It is a level of destruction that put the species on the road to extinction.
Kenyan wildlife officials say they hope the attention that the ivory burn is receiving will jolt potential consumers of ivory in China who might not understand the consequences their demand has had on the world’s elephant population.
“When Kenya burns $100 million worth of ivory, they’ll say, ‘What the hell was that about?’ It will help open their eyes to what is actually happening,” Kenya’s top wildlife service official, Richard Leakey, told Scientific American.
Kenya plans to push for a world ban on ivory sales at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in South Africa later this year, Reuters reports.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, conservationists have adopted increasingly modern anti-poaching efforts — surveillance drones, teams of armed guards, GPS-enabled elephant collars that send a signal when an animal is immobile, a sign that it might be in trouble.
But one of the major reasons poaching continues, experts say, is that the poachers themselves are rarely held accountable.
Only 10 percent of those arrested are prosecuted, according to the Nairobi-based nonprofit group WildlifeDirect. Many of the court proceedings are fraught with corruption and suspects are often able to pay their way out of custody.
In Kenya, where tourism makes up more than 10 percent of national economy, largely because of visitors who come to see the country’s wildlife, officials are trying to make an economic argument to protect the country’s wildlife. Living elephants are a significant source of revenue, conservationists here point out. During a full life, an elephant generates 76 times more in tourism revenue than its ivory is worth in the Asian market, according to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a Nairobi-based elephant rescue group.