It’s a beautiful afternoon in the Blaauwberg Nature Reserve, where the heat is rising. At the centre of the action is a pyre piled with what looks from a distance like an impressive collection of elephant tusks. Flames are leaping, but there’s a small group of firefighters on hand to make sure things don’t get out of control. Two children are watching the fire with fascination. Their T-shirts bear slogans which serve as a reminder of the purpose of the event: “No elephants when I grow up?”
The tusks are made of papier maché, but a few onlookers fling artefacts made of real ivory into the fire, too – a handful of bangles, a small sculpture of a woman’s head.
“Work in ivory can sometimes be exquisitely beautiful,” muses ecologist Ian McCallum, cradling a carving. Then he consigns it to the flames. “With beauty sometimes comes terror and unspeakable suffering.”
The scene has strong visual echoes of one which played out 15 years ago in Kenya, when officials set fire to a mound of ivory as an urgent wake-up call to the world about an ivory trade which was seeing Kenya’s elephant population being steadily decimated by poaching. The move was pivotal in harnessing international outrage about elephant poaching.
“What followed was a time of respite for elephants,” explains Francis Garrard, founder of the Conservation Action Trust. Elephant numbers grew slowly, safeguarded partially by the international ban on ivory trading under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).
But in 1999 and 2008, Cites agreed that Southern African states should be allowed to sell their ivory stockpiles to Japan and China. It is expected that South Africa will lobby to be permitted to undertake another sale at the next meeting of Cites in 2016.
The idea behind ivory stockpile sales is partly that they can provide a valuable source of income to be used towards conservation for African states, and partly that if the market is flooded with ivory in this manner, the demand for illegal ivory procured through poaching will be reduced.
Cites claims there is no evidence that approved ivory sales have increased poaching. But conservationists say that the previous Cites-authorised ivory auctions have been disastrous, serving to actually spike demand for ivory and also creating confusion as to the legal status of trading in ivory.
“By definition, illegal ivory has been procured through criminal activity and should under no circumstances be legitimised,” Environmental Investigation Agency director Mary Rice wrote in the UK Independent in January. “It is standard practice worldwide to destroy seized contraband: drugs, tobacco, fake designer goods, etc., so there is no question of it finding its way into the market place.”
Rice points out, too, that securely maintaining valuable stockpiles of ivory is an expensive enterprise. It also provides incentive for corruption from officials.
It’s for these reasons that groups like the Conservation Action Trust maintain that stockpiles of ivory should be destroyed, rather than sold.
“The message is that ivory should have no commercial value,” Garrard said on Tuesday. “It should be destroyed. It should be unacceptable to wear ivory, to use ivory, to trade ivory.”
That scenario seems like a distant dream at present, with experts estimating that trade in illegal ivory has doubled since 2007, its highest levels in two decades. Rhino poaching tends to attract more attention at the moment, but Africa’s elephants are being killed at a far quicker rate.
“Every day, on average, three rhinos are butchered for their horns,” journalist and conservationist Don Pinnock wrote last year. “But in that same day 96 elephants fall to poacher guns.”
It’s natural that South African attention would be focused more on the threat to rhinos, however, because poaching in this country has been concentrated in recent years on rhinos rather than elephants. In 2013, 1004 rhinos were killed in South Africa, mostly in the Kruger Park. By contrast, by the end of last year the park had not seen incidents of elephant poaching in more than ten years.
One of the factors that is currently serving to protect South African elephants, Garrard says, is that ivory is worth less than rhino horns.
“Here the focus is on rhinos because they are easier to poach,” he explains. “The horn is lighter and much more valuable.”
But in May this year there was an indication that elephants might not be spared for much longer, with the discovery of a bull elephant in Kruger shot dead with its tusks hacked off. Garrard says he has no doubt that trouble is coming for South African elephants, judging by the slaughter taking place north of our borders.
McCallum – a former Springbok as well as an author and conservationist – asked those present at Tuesday’s mock ivory burn to contemplate what the demise of elephants would mean.
“If we can’t protect something this big, how on earth can we protect the smaller things?” he asked. He paid tribute to the astonishing capacity within elephants for kinship and memory, recalling a poignant anecdote.
Late conservationist Anthony Hall-Martin, on the occasion of his daughter’s birth, brought his baby to a herd of elephants in Addo with which he had established a strong rapport. Approaching the matriarch elephant, Hall-Martin presented his baby for inspection. After sniffing the baby with her trunk, the elephant turned away – only to guide her own baby calf to Hall-Martin for a reciprocal greeting.
“Sometimes we start fires in order to put out fires,” McCallum said, moments before the pile of mock tusks were set alight. “May we be living fire-breaks for the future of these creatures.” DM
Photo: Dr. Ian McCallum seen at a mock Ivory Burn on World Elephant Day at Blaauwberg Nature Reserve in Cape Town on Tuesday, 12 August 2014. The burn by Conservation Action Trust paid homage to the ivory burn of 1989 when the Kenyan government ignited 12 tons of seized elephant tusks in an effort to persuade the world to ban the international trade in ivory and to stop the slaughter of elephants. At least 20,000 elephants were killed for their ivory last year, although many conservationists believe the death toll to be far higher. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA
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