elephant ivory, slonovača.jpg
Photograph: Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie, used under CC BY

A crowd of several hundred gathered in Nairobi National Park on Saturday to watch Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta set fire to 105 tons of elephant tusks and more than a ton of rhino horn.

The crowd, among them leaders of other African nations, stood in silence as they watched the pyres of ivory, valued at around 150 million dollars, go up in smoke. It was the first such burning to take place since 1989 - part of Kenya's desperate battle against poachers.

According to the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), some 35,000 tuskers were killed in Africa last year, out of a total African elephant population of between 400,000 and 500,000.

The situation is even worse for rhinos. Since 1960, almost 98 per cent of the continent's black rhinos - the hook-lipped rhino - have been killed.

A kilogram of elephant ivory is worth around 1,100 dollars on the black market, according to the organization Pro Wildlife. Rhino horn goes for 50 times that figure, with China being the main market.

Nature conservation organizations have voiced their support for the destruction of these stockpiles. "Storing the confiscated tusks is laborious and expensive," says Pro Wildlife's Daniela Freyer.

They also represent a risk, as poor countries could earn a great deal of money by engaging in the illegal ivory trade.

The Kenyan government has long sought a global ban on the trade, which will again come up for discussion at a CITES conference that starts in Johannesburg at the end of September.

Most countries banned trading in ivory in the 1980s, but there are exceptions, with China and Japan permitted to buy stocks due to an easing of restrictions, Freyer says.

The Kenyan nature conservation authority has promoted Saturday's event on Twitter under the hashtag #worthmorealive.

The claim certainly rings true for the popular East African tourist destination, which earned around 2.2 billion dollars or almost 4 per cent of its gross domestic product from tourism last year, according to the World Tourism Organization.

More than 9 per cent of Kenya's population of 46 million work in the sector, with the numbers rising by the year. Tourists are drawn to the country by miles of sandy beaches on the Indian Ocean and the game safaris in the interior.

Gavin Shire of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) says that Kenyan authorities need to ensure that the ivory is destroyed in a way that makes it unsuitable for the black market.

"It has to be cut up and then burnt at a high temperature," Shire says, citing burning trials conducted by the official US body in 2008.

After an hour at temperatures of around 1,000 degrees Celsius, only a few grams of ivory were burnt, Shire says. The tusk of an African elephant bull weighs around 45 kilograms, meaning that under these conditions it takes more than four days to destroy a tusk.

Paula Kahumbu of Kenya Wildlife Direct says that corruption is a major problem in combating the illegal trade. "There has not been a single successful prosecution in cases involving the big illegal traders and government officials," Kahumbu says.

Mike Norton-Griffiths, a Kenya-based economic analyst of conservation issues, says the effect of the public burning on the market is far from clear.

"We have no evidence that previous burnings had an effect on the price of ivory or on consumer behaviour," he says.

Norton-Griffiths says the 105 tons to be burnt on Saturday make up around 5 per cent of the global stock of ivory.

The British organization Stop Ivory, which has advised the Kenyan authorities, rejects doubts on the correctness of the burning policy.

Project Administrator Jasmine Williamson says all the ivory brought to Nairobi for burning has been properly coded and accounted for.

The huge ivory pyres prepared for Saturday have certainly drawn the world's attention to the problem.

"We believe that the most important thing is the political aspect," Freyer says. "It has to be part of a total concept."

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