KIRUGA: The burning questions on ivory destruction and jumbo conservation - Daily Nation

The burning questions on ivory destruction and jumbo conservation

Saturday April 30 2016

A Kenya Wildlife Service officer stands near a burning pile of 15 tonnes of elephant ivory seized in Kenya at Nairobi National Park on March 3, 2015. A lot of things about Saturday's record-breaking ivory destruction are the same as they were in 1989. AFP PHOTO | CARL DE SOUZA

A Kenya Wildlife Service officer stands near a burning pile of 15 tonnes of elephant ivory seized in Kenya at Nairobi National Park on March 3, 2015. A lot of things about Saturday's record-breaking ivory destruction are the same as they were in 1989. AFP PHOTO | CARL DE SOUZA 

Eleven pyres of ivory stand in neat formation in the Nairobi National Park.

Ten pyres, at two metres high and four metres-a-side, stand in clusters of five on either side of the centrepiece pyre.

It is a gripping sight. It is the blueprint for a show to end all shows.

The short pathway to pyre 9 is blocked by an ancient Chinese emperor on horseback. There are nine other such ivory carvings, including a tower and several figurines.

On the left of the path to this imposing setup is pyre 12, a unique trough-shaped metal frame with only a few pieces of wood inside. It is the rhino horn pyre.

These pyres have been ready for weeks for Saturday’s political rally of Kenyan conservation.

Ribbon cutting is replaced with a torch, and the promise to work together to protect elephants and rhinos.


When Kenya “invented” burning ivory in 1989, it had a clear and immediate goal; the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) was coming up that October.

An ideological divide within the sub-Saharan African group was making it impossible to get a majority vote to list the African elephant as an endangered species.

East Africa wanted a ban, Southern Africa wanted to retain the controlled market. So Kenya decided to stack the deck.

With less than two months to the convention, President Daniel arap Moi lit up 12 tonnes of elephant tusks to convince the world that it was time to ban trade in ivory.

The irony of this symbolic act was that no one noticed that the baton Moi was holding in his left hand was made of, among other things, ivory.

It was a powerful contradiction as it was a spectacle.

The memory of the 1989 inaugural ivory burn often ignores the work that went into it.

Richard Leakey had just taken over the helm at KWS’s predecessor unit and needed a publicity stunt before October. He discussed several ideas with a fellow conservationist, Kuki Gallman.


One cold evening in Laikipia, Leakey and Kuki decided to test what it would take to burn ivory. A fire would turn into headlines, and headlines would whip emotions and turn the vote.

The first results were disappointing. It took five to 10 kilos of firewood to burn each kilo of ivory.

As much as it would grab headlines, it would not make ecological sense to destroy that many trees. So they turned to another solution.

They approached an old friend, a Hollywood man, with a single question. If he was given the problem of burning ivory for a movie set, how would he go about it?

That is exactly how Robin Hollister approached the first ivory burning. By that time, he had worked on special effects on Sheena (1984) and as construction crew on both The Kitchen Toto (1987) and White Mischief (1985).

Robin designed a metal pyramid frame to hold the ivory in a single massive tower.

It would be gripping and evocative, with design inspired by the ancient pyramids of Egypt.

The crew then piled hay stacks doused in kerosene and jet fuel inside the frame. They then placed tonnes of firewood on top of the hay.

Piece by piece, they painted the ivory with Pattex contact glue before stacking it on the exterior of the metal pyramid.

Once it was in place, they doused another several hundred litres of fuel on the pyre right before Moi walked to it, laid out the agenda, and torched it.

It was striking! Like a scene ripped straight out of an action film. The contact glue had been for nothing but show.

It burnt with a bright orange spectacular headline-hungry flame, giving the impression that the ivory was burning and Kenya was serious.

It was the optics, perfectly framed, that would tilt the vote as it snuggled comfortably on front pages across the world.

The fire burned for eight days after the politicians, conservationists and cameras left. Its only reminder today is a pile of ash with a few patches of grass growing on it.


The environmental effects of this burning, and the three that followed in the next 25 years, were never determined.

But the quantities were always small enough to assume the benefits of a massive visually striking pyre outweighed whatever holes we were poking in the Ozone layer.

In the last such event last year, only 15 tonnes of ivory were destroyed.

This time, however, 105 tonnes are piled up for a single event. The real work will start after the politicians and cameras have left.

It will last three days to a week, the Kenya Wildlife Service estimates.

When I asked Judy Wakhungu, the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, whether an environmental impact assessment had been done for the burn, she told me it had. She added that the event had a permit from Nema.

It was the same specific answer from almost everyone else, but when one gets to the details, things get a bit murky.


A lot of things about this record-breaking ivory destruction are the same as they were in 1989.

Leakey is back at the helm of KWS. On the ground, Robin Hollister, now a locations manager on production crews, is still the man who has to make sure the pyres are ready.

The 17th Cites meeting will be in South Africa in September, and is most likely going to rekindle the old cold war, like it did in 1989.

One of the goals of the ivory burn seems to be to tilt the votes to extend a nine-year-moratorium on ivory sale proposals that expires this year.

An experiment by the US National Forensics Lab in 2008 showed that under ultra-high temperatures (982 degrees Celsius), only 0.007 kgs of ivory can be destroyed per minute.

With 105 tonnes in 12 pyres set up outside in rainy April, it must be even harder to achieve and maintain heat.

This means that it’s not only a greater environmental and occupational hazard but it is also ridiculously expensive.

But everyone I talked to insisted on the word destroy; the ivory wouldn’t burn, it would be destroyed with heat.

It’s a sly differentiation. To burn is to consume fuel, or to be consumed as a fuel.

When a piece of paper burns, it combusts and becomes the fuel for the fire.

It only needs oxygen to continue burning until it becomes ash. Ivory is different because its interior is made of dentine and the exterior of enamel, the same material your teeth are made of.

The enamel can char when exposed to fire, but the dentine is hardier and doesn’t burn.

An “ivory burn” is a week-long fiery fiesta to try and breakdown the dentine with as much heat as possible.


For this one, Robin tells me, he has created a network of 12 pipes, running underground.

A single pipe runs from a half-buried 6,000 litre tank, to a small pump.

From the pump, the pipe runs about seven metres on a trench to a manifold from where the individual pipes emerge and swiftly disappear into the ground.

Since no one has ever destroyed more than 15 tonnes at once (Hong Kong’ destroyed its 28 tonnes over two years), everything here is a guesstimate.

It will take 20,000 litres of fuel, a half-kerosene-half-diesel cocktail, to keep the 12 fires burning for long enough to destroy the ivory and rhino horn.

Or twice that amount of fuel. No one knows.

At the bottom of each pyre’s metal frame, around a winding pipe with small holes for the fuel, are gunny bags filled with 20 tonnes of bark from the endangered red stinkwood.

The bark, known scientifically as Prunus Africana, was harvested in Baringo for export. A court case led to it sitting in a warehouse for years, until it was donated for this event.

On a wire mesh tray atop the gunny bags are 30 tonnes of sandalwood, also endangered, from Voi.

In some pyres, the sandalwood is covered with animal skins and other animal trophies set for destruction.

Even if the environmental effects of destroying ivory with fire were low enough to be ignored, would it be worth it?


In Kenya, the question of whether ivory really burns is not even as much about the science but morals.

Some of the ivory at Saturday’s burn has a rough, dull white exterior, like its enamel has been scrapped off.

It is a prevailing concern, that once ivory is burnt for show, the exterior can be scrapped off and the ivory still sold.

With an intact interior, it achieves both functions, the show and the trade.

There is no specific verification method to ensure everything burns, and as headlines fade but the fire burns, only a small circle knows whether all the ivory is completely destroyed.

After the embers have died, KWS will still be grappling with how to involve local people in conservation.

To most black Kenyans, conservation remains a mzungu affair. And every one is in it for the money, not the common good.

There is a complete and obstinate refusal to consider any changes to our conservation philosophy.

Yet even non-consumptive utilisation, or preservationism, has only alienated communities from wildlife resources.

People living next to elephants still see no value in conservation, and would (and have) readily eat an elephant if they corner it.

To them, elephants are a nuisance that only benefit tourists, conservationists and the state. They don’t trust conservation, and with good reason.

Ask around, and many questions on whether the ivory will actually be destroyed will come up.

No one will be shocked if some or all of it ends up back in the black market. It’s not apathy; its complete removal from the event and its symbolism.

And it is more dangerous to conservation than a poacher with a gun.


Botswana doesn’t destroy her ivory. Instead, in 2014, Botswana used some of its stockpile to build a monument of an elephant at its main airport.

It will stand there for generations to come to remind people that ivory belongs to elephants and that human beings can use wildlife resources effectively.

Botswana today holds the world’s largest elephant population and is one of the success stories of consumptive utilisation of wildlife resources.

It was also one of the countries that successfully pushed to be allowed to sell ivory in 1999 and 2008 to raise money for conservation.

We haven’t always been like this. In the early 1970s, a magnificent jumbo called Ahmed became the face of conservation.

After a letter-writing campaign, President Jomo Kenyatta declared him a living monument and assigned him a contingent of rangers.

His symbolism was one of the reasons why we successfully banned sport hunting and ivory trade in the early 1970s.

The problem though, seems to be that we were never serious about conservation from the start, leave alone the philosophy we preach at international meets.

On July 3, 1975, The New Scientist published a “confession” that Margaret Kenyatta, the president’s daughter, had shipped ivory to China despite the ban imposed by her father.

Today, State House and State Lodges still have ivory proudly mounted as decorations.

There are at least three sets of mounted ivory at Fairmont Mt Kenya Safari Club too, where the Giant’s Club Summit preceding this burn was held.

Two days before I made the visit to the ivory burn site, a leading Kenyan conservationist’s family had surrendered ivory trinkets that had been in the family for years.


It is one of the many unfortunate ironies of Kenyan conservation, and society.

Destroying some ivory and only mounting it in such lofty places is moral contradiction.

It tells us as Kenyans that only the elite can own ivory, and that the ban is only for the poor.

Only lowly poachers will get arrested while their mafia dons walk free, and mingle with (and fund) politicians and conservationists alike.

Some ivory from elephants that have died naturally, and maybe a few that have been killed, will end up as set pieces in privileged homes and spaces.

One of the leading sentiments one feels from multiple conversations with the people on the ground is that they are set on this, and nothing will change anytime soon.

The Cabinet Secretary told me that destroying the 105-tonnes of ivory made it “less of a headache” for her.

Conservationists made pseudo-political statements for it, and I was furnished with a two-page grid of criticisms and the Kenyan counter-arguments to destroying ivory, and to this specific form of destroying it.

It’s heresy to consider any other form of destruction, leave alone finding any other way to use the ivory or utilise wildlife resources.

As the fire burns, promises will be made to actively and seriously prosecute the real poachers, not just the gunmen.

To find ways to involve communities more in conservation. It is a promise we’ve heard many times before. It is an empty promise.

These pyres will burn, the environment be damned. They will burn, even if the fires mean nothing to the people who live next to the elephants and rhinos.

Mr Kiruga is a writer, researcher and content creator. [email protected] This story was first published on