The Great Ivory Burn – Alternatives Needed

02 May

On April 30th, 2016, Kenya burned 105 tonnes of ivory and a further 1.5 tonnes of rhino horn. It was a defiant signal to the world that we don’t tolerate poaching – and importantly that we don’t care about the economic value you place on it. The message is clear, and one that has been reiterated three times since Richard Leakey promulgated the first big burn in 1989 with a subsequent burn in 2013. It is undoubtedly a spectacle that will leave an indelible impression on the minds of those who witness it: tonnes of ivory, burning, the teeth of thousands of pachyderms going up in smoke. In an age of social media, where images are spread far and fast, it is even more thought-provoking, and to a wider than ever audience.

A lot has changed between 1989 and now.

The question is, what is the goal here? Is the goal to stop poaching? To save the elephants? Where will all these saved elephants live? Conservation suffers from many things, not least is a culture of back-stabbing and a lack of coordination. It is important to point out at the beginning that this piece is not intended to attack the efforts of the very dedicated people that coordinated and implemented this exercise. I have many friends who work in this sector and this is not a personal attack. Their dedication and commitment to saving Africa’s elephants and rhinos is extremely admirable and worthy of the highest merit. Instead, I want focus outside of ivory and horn on the wider issues that set the landscape for conservation in Kenya.

Fundamentally, an ivory burn is about a public relations campaign. “Only elephants should wear ivory” we often hear. More recently, the campaign has been more pointed “Hands off OUR elephants”[1] aimed at the mostly eastern demand for ivory.

It is widely quoted that the 1989 burn did more to bring in funding and other assistance to the fledgling KWS than any number of donor relations campaigns ever could. The brilliant move by Dr. Richard Leakey to highlight the issue, brought much needed attention to the front lines of the ivory war, where poorly equipped ranger-forces were often overrun by bandits and poachers. Sometimes, they were even overrun by their own lack of logistical support. The ivory burn of 1989 brought in massive resources and media attention to the problem – and the elephant slaughter, in Kenya at least, was largely squelched for a decade. The removal of ivory from the market is above all, a key part of the equation and an overtly honourable goal.

However, a more insidious problem prevailed, one that continued to erode the fabric of Kenya’s habitats and one that now, is a much more pervasive threat to Kenya’s elephant population than whole armies of poachers. The problem is natural resource governance, or the lack of it. This problem continues to challenge the efficacy of subsequent ivory burning campaigns, making them into little more than PR stunts, as Gathara recently wrote.

Billions of dollars in multilateral and bilateral aid have been pumped into African countries in the period since 1989, not to mention the ‘domestic’ or ‘in house’ economic development touted as “Africa-rising”. Much of this has successfully developed key sectors such as agriculture, infrastructure, and energy. In many places, especially in Kenya, entire areas of “useless bush” have been transformed into cities, thriving and throbbing with life. GDP has risen steadily as has per capita income (that gloriously course indicator) showing that real development of the continent’s resources is both possible and inevitable. Direct foreign investment has risen to unimaginable heights, particularly among Chinese companies, with which government’s like Kenya’s have become very cozy. All of this sounds wonderful. But.

Economic development is founded on the valuation of goods and services. Goods and services drive the economy. Ecosystem goods and services are the bedrock of economic goods and services and thus, human development. Without the former, the latter simply can’t exist. In the seminal work by Robert Costanza (1997), he and his co-authors conservatively valued the earth’s ecosystem goods and services at 33 trillion US dollars per year. Subsequent valuations have been much higher and it is likely the actual worth of ecosystem goods and services tops 50 trillion USD. The valuation of ecosystem goods and services is important as it links economic value on the things that the earth does for us for free and for which we would have to pay for dearly if the earth lost its ability to provide these things. This can create very persuasive arguments for its conservation and management. However, modern conservation in Kenya rarely focuses on this. We have focused not on habitat expansion, management and conservation, but on enforcement of species-protection regimes, which for the most part do not take ecosystem goods and services sufficiently into play.

Elephants are a keystone species, an invaluable part of many African ecosystems – those same ecosystems on which humans depend on for our development. While the ivory was burning, I couldn’t help but ask myself the question If we are trying to conserve elephants, are we not tackling the wrong end of the value chain here? Should we not be ensuring that there are places where elephants can actually live in the long run?
The loss of habitat in Kenya, lost to unchecked, unmanaged, unplanned or corrupt development practices, is by far the most insidious threat to African elephants today. The lack of governance in the development of natural resources in Kenya is the most pervasive threat to wildlife and wild places. In Kenya, elephant populations are threatened by loss of habitat, not by poaching.

Poaching is often a result of an economic reality that makes poaching an elephant look attractive (Knapp, 2012). A lack of tolerance of wildlife, fostered by an economic reality that elephants (and other charismatic mega-herbivores) are actually a threat to your kids, to your ability to raise crops, to your ability to increase your per capita income. Most people will not argue that at the basic level, that is why the majority of poaching happens.

Addressing that reality of a lack of tolerance is far more complex and is wrapped up in a discourse around natural resources management that extends far beyond elephants, and that is how to balance conservation and development. This discourse is underpinned by the need for humans to have development, but at the same time to have ecosystem goods and services from healthy habitats. As a country we have largely failed to address the role of habitat in this discourse, on two major fronts: 1) We have focused on species-specific conservation campaigns and 2) we haven’t focused enough on justice reforms and ‘bigger fish’.

Only by addressing these two major fronts, can we conserve elephants and their habitats, while realizing development goals, a reality rarely realized by our front-line enforcement, and species-oriented conservation culture.

The Valuation of our Ecosystems

In many southern African nations, large mammal species are on the rise after centuries of decline. This is due to several complex and interconnected reasons. But amongst those reasons are low population pressure and the ability of southern African nations to set aside large areas of habitat for conservation management. In southern Africa, countries are increasing elephant habitat, not shrinking it as we are in Kenya. Furthermore, the ownership of wildlife as an asset on those pieces of land creates an economic incentive for its conservation. I will not get into the endless hunting debate here as I fear it is a distraction from the facts. Suffice to say, wildlife numbers are rising due in part to habitat increases and management, not falling.

Now, human population dynamics in Namibia and in Kenya are vastly different. In fact, the very reality that Kenya has ANY elephants is a great testament to the success and dedication of many people in this country. Setting habitat aside for elephants is a difficult argument to make in modern Kenya. It is happening in some places, which is admirable. In areas of Kenya where elephants habitat is being conserved are we seeing increases or at least stabilization. The Northern Rangelands Trust supports community conservancies. These are a case in point, where elephant poaching numbers have been falling for several years, and importantly, elephant habitat has been expanding to the benefit of people living with them. However, the NRT would likely be loathe to say they are advocating for more elephant habitat – they are advocating for better land management, increased value for wildlife and wild lands, and overall better management of ecosystem goods and services such as grazing, water resources etc. Elephants and people are both benefiting from this.

Another example is the city of Nairobi. Nairobi’s economy depends on water from the Aberdares. In fact, the health of Aberdares ecosystem is critical to millions of people from farmers to factory workers in everything from hydrological cycling to carbon sequestration (UNEP, 2011). The Aberdares ecosystem is also critical elephant habitat, and likewise, elephants are critical to the maintenance of that habitat, in everything from trail maintenance to seed dispersal. The connection between healthy ecosystems, and healthy economies is explicit and an economic valuation of the Aberdares conducted by RhinoArk and UNEP, has helped in part to stem the encroachment and destruction of that habitat. Placing an economic value on the Aberdares has helped ensure the survival of the ecosystem, including its constituent parts such as elephants. We haven’t done enough of this elsewhere in the country.

Justice Reforms

Secondly, the justice system in Kenya has failed Kenyans on many fronts[2]. The unenforced legal frameworks around development, environmental safeguards and zoning are often ignored, destroying more habitat for both elephants and humans. Even if poaching were to stop today, we wouldn’t have enough habitat to support growth of many wildlife populations because we are simply developing it in a way that places greed over the rule of law.

Nick Brandt’s iconic works hauntingly depict the loss of habitat in East Africa. In the time since I was a child, many areas that provided both elephant habitat, and more importantly ecosystem goods and services such as water and carbon sequestration, have been converted to housing estates, unplanned developments and mosaic agricultural patchworks. This is a somewhat inevitable cost of development, but the template need not be overrun by bad zoning, corruption and overt greed. Kenya’s current environmental protection laws are some of the strongest in the world. We don’t have a law problem – we have a governance problem. Only by enforcing these legal safeguards, and tackling issues in the justice system that allow those with influence to subvert national laws can real habitat protection for both humans and elephants occur.

In conclusion, I am not critical of the decision to burn the ivory stockpile. I think this is an important signal to markets abroad that Kenya is interested in living elephants, not cheap trinkets. But as an equally powerful signal, the Government of Kenya, the conservation community and Kenyans as a whole must address the other end of the value chain, with equal vigor. The burning of ivory is not, in itself, enough to save elephants and the roles they play in our ecosystems, especially in light of the problems presented by habitat loss, fragmentation and poor natural resource governance in general.

We must find ways to increase tolerance of wildlife through increasing the value of wildlife habitat, through the lens of payments for ecosystem goods and services and other valuation tools. Equally, we must tackle the disease that is corruption in our justice system, holding leaders, developers, institutions and middlemen to account across all spectra of society.

It is important to note that Kenya’s actions may in fact save some elephants, but elephants, as a singular species, will not save this country from the degradation of habitats. We need a new, innovative and fundamentally different approach.


[1] The irony at the sense of ownership here is not lost.

[2] As Gathara points out, there is a sense of grotesque hypocrisy that some of the people lighting the pyres at the ivory burns have explicit connections to known ivory middlemen.


Posted by on May 2, 2016 in Uncategorized


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2 responses to “The Great Ivory Burn – Alternatives Needed

  1. Mukuhiwanjohi

    May 17, 2016 at 15:41

    Very insightful piece. Conservation is very broad and we need to embrace all forms of conservation..

    • Arthur Mugisha

      May 18, 2016 at 05:39

      Spot on.Good analysis and insights. The problem is not poaching, but how to live with elephants as human population grows and unsustainable development rages on


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