Botswana broke ranks with the international elephant conservation movement yesterday and boycotted the burning of 105 metric tons of seized ivory aimed at highlighting scourge of illegal elephant poaching that was attended by a number of African leaders. The decision by Botswana reveals a major rift among elephant conservationist on how to deal with seized tusks. While Botswana has taken a position against the burning of seized ivory most conservationists argue that amassing stockpiles of ivory fuels speculation about possible future sales. Reserved ivory also is vulnerable to theft and must be guarded, costing money that could be used to prevent poaching.
Kenyan authorities yesterday ( Saturday) burnt seized tusks and finished ivory goods representing more than 6,000 dead elephants to highlight the scourge of illegal poaching that is driving the mammal to extinction on the African continent. Some 105 metric tons of confiscated ivory was set alight in a national park on the outskirts of the capital Nairobi on Saturday in what organizers say is the largest ever burning of the valued material. But while a number of African leaders and conservation heavyweights attended the Saturday’s burn, Botswana boycotted the event. The country, which is home to the world’s largest elephant herd, says the measure undermines efforts to persuade local communities that ivory is more valuable on live elephants than dead ones.
“For us, burning an elephant’s tusks is like putting the final nail in the coffin of a once magnificent animal,” Botswana’s Environment Minister Tshekedi Khama wrote in a recent piece in Britain’s Independent newspaper. Rather than burning ivory, Botswana has used some of its recovered ivory in public art projects that memorialize the dead elephants. Conservationists overwhelmingly support the planned ivory burning, the latest destruction of ivory stockpiles aimed at discouraging illegal poaching. In recent years, the step has been taken elsewhere in Africa, as well as in Asia and even in Europe and the U.S. Peter Knights, the executive director of WildAid, a California-based group working to combat trade in illegal wildlife products, said amassing stockpiles of ivory fuels speculation about possible future sales. Reserved ivory also is vulnerable to theft and must be guarded, costing money that could be used to prevent poaching.
“People don’t need ivory, elephants do, and we should just say we’re done with the ivory trade,” Mr. Knights said. The undertaking highlights both a renewed push by African nations to end illegal poaching and the challenges faced by conservationists on a continent where the pressure to address urgent human needs often collides with efforts to preserve wildlife habitats. From 1.2 million in the 1970s, the number of elephants roaming Africa has plunged to about 400,000. Conservation groups estimate elephants are being killed at a paceÔÇö-about 30,000 a yearÔÇöthat exceeds the population’s annual birthrate. Despite data from researchers showing that sales of ivory stockpiles have increased demand and raised black-market prices for the precious material, some in Kenya say warehousing it for potential sale makes more sense. “It’s extremely unwise to get rid of your stocks. It’s a big bargaining chip in the future,” said Mike Norton-Griffiths, an independent consultant on conservation economics in Kenya. The future of elephant conservation, he said, may rest not in destroying tusks and other ivory products but in a tightly regulated, legal market of the product. “I simply cannot see any way in which they can completely close down the ivory trade,” he said.
But that is exactly the goal of an international movement working to reduce demand in AsiaÔÇöthe main market for ivoryÔÇöand to stop massive poaching across the African continent. In what could be a turning point for the effort, African leaders are heading up some of the newest initiatives. Ahead of Saturday’s burn, the leaders of Gabon, Kenya, Uganda and Botswana met in Kenya to discuss how to protect the elephants that roam across all their countries. While poaching will be a major topic of discussion, they are also looking at longer-term dangers like habitat loss and how to find a way for animals like elephants to cohabit with people on a continent where a booming human population means there’s less and less land available for wildlife.