Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta had had enough. It was high time, he determined, for a statement guaranteed to grab the attention of poachers targeting his country’s already endangered elephant population. So, on Sunday, more than 100 tons of ivory illegally poached from Kenyan elephants and rhinos were stacked on pyres in Nairobi National Park and ceremoniously set aflame.
“The height of the pile . . . before us marks the strength of our resolve,” Kenyatta declared before torching the first bundle. “No one — and I repeat, no one — has any business in trading in ivory, for this trade means death [to] our elephants and death [to] our natural heritage.”
While the event, the largest of its kind in Kenyan history, won the approval of noted conservationists like Richard Leakey, chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service, it drew quick condemnation from some environmentalists. They fear not only that this will hardly impact the poaching yet will drive the lawbreakers to stalk even more elephants in a concerted effort to make up the loss.
In fact, officials from Botswana, itself home to a sizable elephant and rhino population, boycotted the event, with Tshekedi Khama, minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, stressing that “burning [the] ivory demonstrate[s] . . . that the animal has no value.”
Nor is every Kenyan feeling the burn. While many interpret it as a sign of the commitment to preserve a precious resource, critics have been quick to point out that the presumed value of the ivory – about $172 million on the black market — represented 1 1/2 times Kenya’s yearly budget for its environmental and natural resources agency.
Others couldn’t help but notice that it took the Wildlife Service 10 days to build a crematorium for the ill-gotten bounty, likely costing the government yet another pretty penny.
Kenyatta no doubt felt that, considering the dire forecast — extinction — for Kenya’s elephants, a grand gesture was called for. But increasing funding for those departments charged with the care and protection of the imperiled pachyderms would have been grander still.