Kenya torches huge pile of ivory tusks in historic burn
President lights 11 pyres on the edge of Nairobi National Park
Kenya's president Saturday set fire to 105 tonnes of elephant ivory and more than a tonne of rhino horn, believed to be the largest stockpile ever destroyed, in a dramatic statement against the trade in ivory and products from endangered species.
Uhuru Kenyatta put a flame to the biggest of 11 pyres of ivory tusks and one of rhino horn on a chilly afternoon. Overnight torrential rains that stopped midday had threatened to ruin the event and created a mud field in the ground around the piles inside the Nairobi National Park.
"A time has come when we must take a stand and the stand is clear ... Kenya is making a statement that for us ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants," Kenyatta said.
The stacks of tusks represent more than 8,000 elephants and some 343 rhinos slaughtered for their ivory and horns, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service.
Kenya will push for a total ban on trade in ivory at the 17th meeting of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) to be held in South Africa later this year, said Kenyatta.
The pyres were fuelled with about 20,000 litres of jet fuel and oxygen, said Robin Hollister, the event's fire master, as a thick plume of white smoke billowed over the yellow flames consuming the ivory. Hollister earlier said it's not known how long the fire will take because the burning of such a quantity is unprecedented.
Kenya decided to destroy the ivory instead of selling it for an estimated $150 million US. Some critics had suggested that the money raised from the ivory sales could be used to develop Kenya and protect wildlife. But Kenyatta said that Kenya wants to make the point that ivory should not have any commercial value.
Others said the burning will not end the killing of elephants because international gangs take advantage of Kenya's porous borders and corruption to continue the illegal trade.
Poachers kill an estimated 30,000 elephants every year, and it's feared that in 15 years, elephants and rhinos could all but disappear from the wild.
"We have got to kill the trade in ivory once and for all," said renowned conservationist and anthropologist Richard Leakey.
Strong demand from Asia
Confiscated ivory is supposed to be burned in an oven, but Kenyan authorities decided to do this in the open air to give the issue more media attention, said freelance journalist Ruud Elmendorp. He was at the burn in Nairobi National Park.
He said ivory cannot be easily burned and needs gasoline or kerosene as fuel for the flames.
It's unlikely the burn will be effective in stopping all poaching because of strong demand, especially from Asia, for elephant tusks and rhino horn, Elmendorp told CBC News.
"If the demand stays, the poaching will continue, one way or another," he said.
CITES banned commercial trade in African elephant ivory in 1989, but since then has permitted one-off sales.
Conservationists say that ban, and Kenya's 1989 burning, helped relieve a crisis for the elephant population but that one-off legal sales have revived demand.
Africa had 1.3 million elephants in the 1970s but has only 500,000 today.
The elephant populations worst hit by poaching are in Tanzania, Gabon, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Republic of Congo and Congo. The years 2011, 2012 and 2013 witnessed the highest levels of poaching since a poaching crisis in the 1980s, according to Kenya's Wildlife Service.
Northern white rhino on brink of extinction
The situation for rhinos is more precarious. There are fewer than 30,000 left across Africa, and one species, the northern white rhino, is on the brink of extinction. The last three of the species are kept in Kenya under heavy guard.
Pledges last year by China and the United States, two of the biggest ivory markets, to enact almost complete bans on imports and exports have helped drive ivory prices lower.
But rhino horn prices are still rising, conservationists say. Armed patrols of sanctuaries and other measures have helped curb some illegal hunting, but the animal's future remains grim.
Kenya alone had 20,000 rhinos in the 1970s, falling to 400 in the 1990s. It now has almost 650 black rhinos.
Poachers in Kenya can sell the horns of a single dead rhino for the equivalent of about $50,000 US in local markets, earning in one night what would take them many years in regular employment.
With files from Reuters and CBC News