I always felt it would take elephantine steps to save the elephant from extinction. These last few days, I have borne witness to such steps as I watched several conservation stakeholders make final preparations to what could go down as the largest anti-poaching statement ever made by a nation in history.
The reality of the fact that Kenya was about to do something big started sinking in on the 28th of April 2016. The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the custodian of Kenya’s wildlife resources, had invited us to a pre-ivory burn briefing at the Nairobi National Park. Here, I met my fellow bloggers but also journalists from big media brands across the world.
At the briefing, they treated us to a tour of the area in the park where the watershed event would take place. That is when I saw, for the first time at such close range, the eleven pyres set up for burning. It was a surreal moment as I suddenly realised how privileged I was – to bear witness to a rare historical event.
But it was also a dark and sad moment to imagine that these 105 tons of elephant ivory and over a ton of rhino horn once belonged to some 6,500 elephants and 450 rhinos. It was now gone because a weird group of people refuse to acknowledge that ivory and rhino horns are worthless unless they are on our elephants and rhinos.
Estimated to be worth between USD 150 and USD 220 million in the black market and about 5% of the global stock, the 106.35 tons of contraband also contained an assortment of exotic animal skins.
Shipping containers transported the haul to the site, where KWS staff and teams of volunteers then stacked it into towers rising to 10 FT (3.0 M) high and 20 FT (6.1 M) in diameter. It took KWS personnel working round the clock ten days to build these towers.
Many thoughts ebbed and flowed in my mind as I stood near one of the ivory pyres towering 10 FT into the Kenyan sky. Here, in this sprawling oasis of wildlife right inside Kenya’s capital city, I took it all in.
I was still staring at a stunning ivory sculpture of the Genghis Khan surrendered in response to a presidential amnesty when the sudden pull and push of tripods, cameras and bodies jolted me back to reality. Kenya’s president Uhuru had just arrived for the ivory burn. He was accompanied by his counterpart from Gabon, Ali Bongo.
This would be the fourth time Kenya was setting ivory on fire. In 1989, President Daniel arap Moi, set 12 tons ablaze. Two years later, in 1991, he presided over a second fire, destroying 6.8 tons. In 2011, Kenya’s third President, Mwai Kibaki, held the country’s third event, destroying another 5 tons of ivory. President Uhuru would be the fourth Kenyan president to destroy ivory this way.
Dr Richard Leakey introduced the ivory burning technique using fire at the first burn. He was then the head of Kenya’s Wildlife Conservation and Management Department, now the KWS. Richard had turned to fellow conservationist Kuki Gallmann for a solution.
He knew of better ways to destroy ivory, and a fire was not one of them. He still chose this method because he wanted the event to produce powerful images for the global media. Kuki introduced Richard to Hollywood special effects professional Robin Hollister. She describes their discussions and experiments in her memoir, ‘I Dreamed of Africa’.
It was Hollister who would suggest a combination of flammable glue to coat the tusks. A hidden system of pipes would spray them with fuel. It was a huge success. Soon everyone around the world with ivory to burn was using the same technique.
But the fourth burn was way bigger for such a technique to work effectively. Elephant tusks, like human teeth, are resistant to burning and require extreme temperatures of up to 1,000 °C. Even then, this would only reduce their weight by 7 G each minute. But an average African elephant tusk weighs about 23 KG. That means a single tusk would take about 197,143 minutes to burn fully, and there were 105 tons of them!
To burn such a large quantity, Hollister would need to find a bigger, better way. He needed to raise the temperature in the fires to such a degree that the ivory actually disintegrates. He suggested combining kerosene and diesel and compressed air. The mixture would then be pushed at very high pressure, about 16 bar, down a pipe into the pyres.
Finally, with government protocols behind us, President Uhuru approached the biggest pyre in the middle. With a torch of fire in hand, he bent down to light a tray of fuel. Hundreds in the park, and millions more around the world watched.
There was a crackle in the pyre as the pressurised fuel ignited. A few minutes later, black smoke began to rise as the pristine white ivory got a new eerie dark shade. A generation of tuskers was finally departing forever. In that sombre moment, I could swear the rising smoke took the shape of elephants. But I do not usually swear.
Moments later, as the fire raged on behind us, we took pictures and selfies. We wanted to remember this historic moment. We also hoped we would never have to witness such a scene in our lives again.
In small gatherings of minds, we spoke in low tones. We wished stakeholders emphasised prevention rather than cure. That would render such mighty fires unnecessary. Our majestic tuskers and rhinos would have a chance to roam the open wildlife areas. True marks of our tourism heritage and among our biggest revenue earners – about 12% of our GDP. That was our collective parting shot.
According to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a living elephant generates 76 times more in tourism revenue than it does from its ivory over its life. So even if poaching were considered an export business, it was not viable! If this is not reason enough to keep these animals alive, what is?