This past Saturday, April 30th, on a rainy afternoon in Kenya, heads of state from several African nations and hundreds of onlookers came together to watch Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta set fire to over $172 million worth of illegal wildlife goodsOf the many materials burned were 105 tonnes of ivory confiscated from illegally killed elephants. The burning is meant to bring awareness to the country’s growing poaching problem.

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Thousands of observers gathered for the latest burning at Nairobi National Park, where bright orange blazes overtook the ivory and 1.35 tonnes of rhino horn as well. The illegal goods turned to ashes with a clear statement from the president in mind: “For us, ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants.”

The first ivory burn occurred in 1989 in Kenya after elephant populations had dropped by 90 percent within a 15 year timespan in the country. Kenya has continued to do the burns periodically ever since. President Kenyatta announced to his nation that they would seek a complete ban on elephant ivory during a wildlife trade meeting later this year. “We will not be the Africans who stood by as we lost our elephants,” he said.

The systematic slackening of an international ban on the sale of ivory has created a reemergence of large-scale poaching in Africa, with about 30,000 to 50,000 elephants killed on the continent between 2008 and 2013. The demand is driven primarily by Asia for wildlife products, with three-quarters of illegal ivory going to China, and Vietnam being the largest market for rhino horn. The U.S. State Department now estimates that one in five elephants have been killed for their tusks in the past 10 years. Last year alone, 1,338 rhinos were killed for their horns, out of a total estimated population of just 25,600 black and white rhinos.

The ivory burns and crushes have also taken place in various other locations along with Kenya, from the U.S. and China to Gabon and the Philippines. But Kenya’s burn on Saturday is the largest in history by a long shot, though Saturday’s event represents a mere 5 percent of the ivory currently held in government stockpiles throughout Africa.

The burnings remain controversial, with some nations viewing them as wasteful of a lucrative natural resource. However, President Kenyatta doesn’t seem too concerned with this.“There’s a passing of judgment from some that we’re doing the wrong thing, because Kenya is a poor country, and we could use the $150 million-odd dollars that they claim the ivory is worth to develop our nation,” he said. “But I would rather wait for the judgment of future generations, who I am sure will appreciate the decision we have taken today.”

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Of the countries who do hoard ivory stocks, Richard Leakey, chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service and chair of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University, says they are simply “speculators on an evil, illegal commodity.” He continued on to say that “there can be no justification for speculating price rises in ivory down the road, and they should be shamed out of their position once and for all.”


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