In a record-setting act of defiance against the illegal poaching driving elephant populations to extinction, Kenyan authorities will burn 116 tons of illegally obtained ivory on Saturday.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Saturday’s demonstration will mark what authorities say is the largest-ever burning of ivory, with both tusks and ivory goods that came from over 6,000 elephants killed by poachers. According to Time, the stockpile also includes 1.35 tons of rhino horn, animal skins, and other similar materials confiscated by the Kenyan government; BBC reports that this represents about 5% of global ivory stores.
There are only about 400,000 African elephants left in the wild, down from 1.2 million in the 1970s; more than 30,000 African elephants are killed each year for their tusks, a number that experts say exceeds the birth rate and threatens extinction. African elephants also face enormous habitat loss, and as a result have increasingly come into violent contact with their human neighbors. As for African rhinos, experts have warned that they may be extinct by 2026.
“We don’t believe there is any intrinsic value in ivory, and therefore we’re going to burn all our stockpiles and demonstrate to the world that ivory is only valuable on elephants,” Kitili Mbathi, director general of the Kenya Wildlife Service, told BBC.
Although history demonstrates that the sale of ivory stockpiles, no matter how controlled, can drive up demand and increase poaching, some question the impact of burning ivory these days—Botswana, home to Africa’s largest elephant population, is boycotting the burn because officials believe it would demonstrate to communities “that the animal has no value.” Karl Mathieson argued in The Guardian that ivory should be destroyed upon seizure, not stockpiled, and that these burns create a perception of rarity that could drive up prices.
Richard Leakey, renowned conservationist and chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service, who orchestrated the first ivory burn in 1989—the profound impact of which led to an international ban on ivory sales—told Scientific American:
My feeling is that many people who are buying this ivory in China and elsewhere simply don’t know what it is doing to elephants. Maybe they think that it is coming off elephants that have died of natural causes. When Kenya burns $100 million worth of ivory, they’ll say, “What the hell was that about?” It will help open their eyes to what is actually happening.