This coming Saturday, the teeth of over 10,000 elephants will go up in smoke, as 105 tonnes of ivory and over a ton of rhino horn are burned in Kenya, sending a clear message to the world that the people of this country reject the illegal wildlife trade. But this big day attended by celebrities from around the world is no cause for celebration or self-congratulation; on the contrary, these vast funeral pyres are a sombre and tragic indictment of humanity. At least the burn removes the possibility of these tusks and rhino horns falling into the wrong hands and further fuelling the illegal international trade. Not surprisingly, it’s a decision causing controversy, and indeed it raises some difficult questions, for which there are no perfect answers. But we believe that the burn is the best of an imperfect bunch of options.
Some people advocate selling the ivory and rhino horn and investing the funds in conservation. However, even if that were possible (which it isn’t, given that the international trade in ivory and rhino horn is currently illegal), this would only serve to fuel the demand, thereby causing more elephants and rhino to be killed for this grisly trade. And the chances are that a bold statement like the burn can bring in more philanthropic funding for conservation than the sale of the trophies would reap. This formula worked 27 years ago; there’s a chance it can work again.
Some argue that legalizing the ivory trade and releasing stockpiles for sale would flood the market and drive the price downwards, shifting the risk-profit balance enough to deter poachers and traders. Empirical evidence has shown this doesn’t work – witness the two international sales sanctioned in the late 90s, which opened loopholes for the illegal trade and caused an upsurge in the killing of elephants. Like the rhino horn trade, the gap between potential supply and potential demand is simply too great – releasing ivory into the market will only stimulate demand and result in the deaths of more elephants and more people, as greater pressure piles onto the brave men and women battling poachers on the front line in Africa.
In defending the burn, many pundits focus on the economic value of tourism as a justification for conservation, citing how many tourism dollars would be lost if elephants and other wild animals were wiped out. This is beyond dispute but it is also a fragile defence of conservation in isolation, for tourism is fickle and even in good years, tourism dollars are not sufficient to pay for contemporary conservation needs, particularly in the remote areas where tourism is not viable but where elephants and other wildlife are nonetheless still surviving.
In discussing values, it would be imprudent to overlook the needs of the rural people who coexist with wildlife who are largely expected to bear the brunt of conflict with wildlife, while simultaneously playing the role of pro bono wildlife guardians. If the people who live alongside elephants don’t benefit directly from their survival (and most rural Kenyans don’t see the direct rewards of tourism, but rather see elephants only as dangerous crop-raiders), then they have no incentive to conserve them. At TsavoCon, by implementing our Stabilization Through Conservation approach, we work in partnership with rural communities to implement solutions which meet the needs of humans alongside the needs of wildlife, in order to attain a coexistence of mutual benefit instead of constant conflict. An often overlooked benefit of wildlife to people is the role that it can play as an agent of rural stabilization – helping to secure the safety of people, their economy, their well-being and their environment – which, in many ways, is more valuable than money alone.
And in all this talk of “value”, let’s not forget the elephants themselves, who have as much right to walk this earth as we do. I dare say they are more peaceable fellow wanderers than we humans have proved to be. And, without doubt, elephants need their beautiful ivory much more than we need gruesomely intricate souvenirs of slaughter carved from their teeth.