Here Is Why We Should Think About Alternative Courses For Dealing With Impounded Ivory

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The problem of poaching remains a nightmare in this country. Nothing seems to stop the reports about poaching of wildlife in Kenya and Africa in general and no amount of effort to curb the practice both from local and international organisations seems to be sufficiently helping to solve the problem. So what is the way forward? Even international Elephant protection bodies have acknowledged that the poaching of elephants  is spiraling out of control and the agencies are at a loss of just what to do to prevent this practice.

By the time you will be reading this, the US Embassy in Nairobi, The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and other partners including Wildlife Direct, Save the Elephants, African Wildlife Foundation and the Amboseli Trust for Elephants will have concluded plans for a mega historic event that will see the burning of all the illegal ivory and rhino horns that have been collected from poachers. The Giant Club Summit will take place between 29th -30th of April 2016 will be discussing the issue of how to save Elephants from extinction.  The  burning of the ivory will be preceded by global conversations on various platforms online that started on April 23, 2016 and which will bring together all major stakeholders in wildlife conservancy as well as the general citizenry on why elephants and rhinos matter and why they should be protected.

The 120 tons of ivory that now face an imminent end is the largest stockpile to be destroyed at a go by any country.

As staunch as this measure is and good intentions notwithstanding, here are some of the reasons why I think that the burning should be approached a bit more critically than the traditional methods because a wise man once said that, “If you do something for 40 years and there is still no difference, its time you used a different approach,”

  1. Except there is a good game plan, the burning might not help.

While the poaching of the wild animals is an abuse of the natural heritage of a country and a violation of laws establishing the relationship between human beings and wildlife, setting ablaze the recovered ivory is not a guarantee that these poachers will desist from tusk and ivory hunting. True, the burning could reduce the amount of ivory in circulation as well as send the message that Kenya is staunchly against the selling of ivory and believes that ivory is valueless except on a live elephant, but just how far will this go in the deterrence of seasoned mafias who have been encouraging the poaching of elephants for their tusks?

Botswana has made an ivory sculpture. Image from http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/campaigns/GiantsClub/why-botswana-won-t-burn-illegal-ivory-a6999541.html

The Ministry of Environment in Botswana has for example said that they cannot burn impounded ivory because to do so would be to drive the last nail on the coffin of a once magnificent animal. Instead of burning the ivory, the country uses ivory to create sculptures of these animals and put them at prominent places so that they remain permanent reminder of the shame that greedy people have done to their natural heritage.

Therefore, instead of burning the stockpiles, here are some of the alternative measures that can be taken in order to deal with the ivory:

  1. In 2013, the government of China shelved plans to incinerate 16 tons of illicit ivory and as part of putting the stockpiles to alternative use, 500kgs of the stock was given to schools for educational purposes – the department of Agriculture, fisheries and conservation in the country decided that donations would be a good way to rid the illicit ivory. I think the government of Kenya can borrow a leaf from what China did and use part of the stockpiles to educate children and teach more about ivory and why, as they grow up, they should pursue a moral ground in the protection of wildlife. The only challenge would be that 120tons of tusk is still too much and using it as educational tools or donating some of them to make artistic pieces such as sculptors might not be an effective way of disposing of all the illegal ivory. So this takes us back to the government’s original plan of burning the illegal ivory.
  2. What to do with impounded ivory remains a dilemma for most governments. Katherine Ma Miu-Wah one of the committee members on the board that decided the fate of stockpiles that were collected in China in 2013 argued that keeping the stockpiles for a longer time would provide enough time to determine the alternative disposal methods for the illegal stockpiles.

“In a way, it is paradoxical. In a way, you want to preserve the ivory but it promotes cruelty. But to incinerate it, people feel it would be such a waste. Unless there is a better option, keeping it in a safe way to allow more time to think it through,” Ma argues.

Perhaps Kenya too should think along these lines. If the ivory can be kept for a lot longer, perhaps something can be figured out and a better means with which to dispose of the ivory can be found. The challenge however will be the security of the ivory piles as they await their fate so again, we are back to the option of burning in order to avoid creating another problem of having robbers raiding the storage areas and making away with the ivory. Worse still, the ivory –as it awaits its fate—might land in the hands of unscrupulous officials.

  1. Crushing ivory is also a good alternative to burning as a destruction method because it not only renders the ivory useless, but it also takes care of the air pollution that would arise if the stockpile is burned. WWF and TRAFFIC believe that such destruction must be backed by rigorous documentation including an independent audit and additional law enforcement efforts to combat poaching and trafficking, a stronger judicial process to end impunity for wildlife criminals and enhanced local stewardship of natural resources. This includes other alternatives that may be adopted such as cutting into small pieces such as the case in Namibia.

But for there to be the desired effects, the burning should be done with the following in mind in order for there to be fruits:

  1. Burning stockpiles of ivory does not have any proven record of curbing poaching so in effect, this means that the burning should be backed by other intelligent measures.

The US, France and China have all previously set ablaze stacks of illegal ivory with what analysts say has had no evidence on the poaching trends or the importation of these illegal wares. This article argues that, on the surface, destroying ivory stockpiles seems to be a positive action only because it creates conversation and awareness about the illegality of the trade. But unfortunately, these effects remain largely on the surface as any causal link between burning stockpiles and elephant conservation is probably small and there is a definitive lack of evidence to support it.

Therefore, if Kenya is bent on burning this stockpile, there must be a different approach in place to ensure that the message of conservation goes beyond the surface.

2. Could we be burning evidence?

In the event that the government is prosecuting the smugglers and poachers in court for breaking the law, doesn’t burning the stockpile amount to burning evidence? Last year, Tanzania criticized Malawi for burning ivory that was worth $5 million that was part of a case that was already in court. Through lawyer Christon Ghambi, Tanzania argued that destroying the ivory would affect the case the Tanzanian government was pursuing against the smugglers as there would be no substantial evidence to back up the case. So, does Kenya plan to pursue these case(s) in court? If so, aren’t the stockpiles about to be torched a necessary part of evidence in the court case?

There are people on both sides of the debate on what to do with the ivory. Patrick Gathara says that ivory burning is a PR stunt that hides a brutal truth about the ivory trade. Paula Kahumbu talks about Why it makes sense to burn ivory stockpiles. Morris Kiruga also looks at the history and Politics of Ivory and Fire.

This is a conversation that should continue beyond the burning of Ivory this Saturday.

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