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 a number of conservation stakeholders make final preparations to what could go down history as the largest anti poaching statement ever made by a nation.
The reality of the fact that Kenya was about to do something big started sinking in on the 28th of April 2016, when the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the custodian of Kenya’s wildlife resources, 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 pre-ivory briefing, we were given a tour of the area in the park where the watershed event would take place. That is when I saw the 11 pyres set up for burning for the first time at such close range. It was a surreal moment as you suddenly realise what a great honour this was to have been chosen among the few to bear witness to history in the making.
But it was also a dark and sad moment to imagine that these 105 tons of elephant ivory and 1.35 tons of rhino horn once belonged to some 6,500 elephants and 450 rhinos, now gone because a weird group of people refuse to acknowledge the fact that ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants.
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 exotic animal skins.
Shipping containers were used to transport the haul to the site where it was then stacked into towers up to 10 FT (3.0 M) tall and 20 FT (6.1 M) in diameter. It took KWS personnel working round the clock 10 days to build the towers.
Many thoughts ebbed and flowed in my mind as I stood near one of the ivory pyre towering 10 FT into the Kenyan sky in this sprawling oasis of wildlife right inside Kenya’s capital city.
I was staring at a beautiful ivory sculpture of the Genghis Khan that had been surrendered in response to a presidential amnesty when there was sudden pull and push as Kenya’s president Uhuru arrived, accompanied by his counterpart from Gabon, Ali Bongo for the burn.
This would be the 4th 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 3rd President, Mwai Kibaki, held the country’s 3rd event, destroying another 5 tons of ivory. President Uhuru would be the 4th Kenyan president to destroy ivory this way.
The ivory burning technique using fire was introduced by Dr. Richard Leakey 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 there were better ways of destroying ivory and fire was not one of them but he still chose this method because he wanted the event to produce powerful images for the global media. Kuki, who describes their discussions and experiments in her memoir, ‘I Dreamed of Africa’, introduced Richard to Hollywood special effects professional, Robin Hollister.
It was Hollister who would suggest a combination of flammable glue to coat the tusks and a hidden system of pipes to 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 4th 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. But even then, this would only reduce their weight by 7 G each minute yet an average African elephant tusk weighs about 23 KG and there were 105 tons of them!
To burn such a large quantity, Hollister would need to find a bigger, better way 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 which would then be pushed at very high pressure, about 16 bar, down a pipe into the pyres.
Finally, after all government protocols were observed, President Uhuru approached the biggest pyre in the middle and with a torch of fire in hand, bent over to light a tray of fuel as 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 turned dark – a generation of tuskers was finally departing forever. In that 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, if only to remember this historic moment. Most of us hoped we would never have to witness such a scene in our lives again.
We thought if prevention could be emphasised more than the cure, then such fires would not be necessary and our mighty tuskers and rhinos would have a chance to roam the open wildlife areas, a true mark of our tourism heritage which makes up for about 12% of our GDP.
As for me, I can only add my two cents to the debate, quoting David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s statement that “Over its life, a live elephant generates 76 times more in tourism revenue than it does for its ivory.” #IvoryBelongstoElephants #WorthMoreAlive