The momentum, and pressure to support, this past weekend’s ivory burn in Kenya was palatable. Major environmental groups from both Kenya and around the world joined forces to push the validity and necessity of the burn.
The number of pieces of ivory and horn burnt in the stockpiles was staggering. Estimates put the value of the stockpiles in Nairobi National Park at $150-million or more. The estimates were that the ivory and horn came from more than 8,000 elephants and 300 rhino.
Along with the smell of smoke, the air was full of self-congratulations. None was happier with the positive international press than Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta who must remain quite pleased with headlines such as this from London: “Kenya Burns World’s Largest Ivory Stockpile in Conservation Effort.”
In front of cameras, President Kenyatta proudly proclaimed: “Ivory is worthless unless it’s on elephants.”
Over 10 years of working with and for some truly dedicated and wonderful environmental groups, and dedicated passionate defenders of the earth, President Kenyatta’s statement rang true.
This is why the elephants are doomed.
The thinking behind statements like the two above also illustrates why, despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent around the world trying to protect so many different places and animals, the environmental movement has failed.
If ivory was worthless unless it was on elephants, and presumably rhino horn worthless unless on a rhino, the 25,000 pieces of ivory and horn that were torched in Kenya would still be on elephants and rhinos, wouldn’t they?
And the estimates of the $150-million in potential conservation funds that went up in smoke would be wrong now, wouldn’t they?
The issue is, of course, that the ivory has value – and more value dead than alive. That’s what is known as a fundamental fact of the situation.
So you have to either make the equation outdated by reducing demand – you increase the value of the elephants alive through increased tourism (and sharing those tourism dollars with people in the areas with elephants) – or you greatly increase the penalties associated with poaching (and increase the funds for those fighting the poachers.)
When I was in Kenya earlier this year, tusks were being smuggled out of the Mara in the local ambulance. Someone tipped off Kenya Wildlife Service and I suppose it’s possible that those very tusks went up in smoke this past weekend.
Kenya Wildlife Service rangers are horribly underpaid and the entire department undersupported. So much so that it is suggested often in Kenya, as it is with other places with high poaching, that perhaps the government intentionally does that to turn a blind eye towards poaching in its midst.
Rangers protecting elephant and rhino sanctuaries will be paid 500 shillings ($6) daily and those guarding other wildlife protection zones will receive 200 shillings ($2) daily, said KWS Director William Kiprono.
That’s right. The rangers protecting the elephants get paid $6 a day. This is from 2014 and was detailing stories about the rangers getting a raise to $6 a day.
The poachers make thousands.
The poachers come highly armed and are ruthless. The demand is high. The money is astronomical and everyone from local village thugs to international cartels, and potentially regional terror organisations, are in the business.
Kenya could of course also fight fire with fire and hire mercenaries to guard the national parks. They would get paid more than $6 a day, of course, but they would do the job. Vast areas in major national parks are completely unguarded.
Once presumably captured, the penalties for poaching need to be dramatically increased and enforced. Saudi Arabia executes people for minor crimes. I am sure that the space where the burn took place is charred. Let’s build gallows there and if you poach, assist poachers, buy from poachers – Saturdays are when you hang in public.
Environmentalists reading this are chuckling uncomfortably to themselves. They know the government will never pay the rangers what they need to be paid; they will never hang poachers publicly and if they did, they would also probably hang a few political enemies as well.
I’m fine with that.
Because elephants and rhinos are worth protecting. So are the leopards that are poached or the cheetahs gunned down on the plains for their coats.
You have to understand the fight and you have to understand that the ends justify the means. You either fight to win or you don’t fight at all, which is essentially what is happening here.
But, stammer environmental groups, look at all the global coverage on the issue? Look at how we are bringing the issue of elephant poaching front and centre?
It already was.
There are very few places on the planet, if any, where the residents don’t know that elephants and rhinos are being poached at an alarming rate.
You do awareness-building campaigns when you need to build awareness. That’s not the issue here.
So now, we have two facts we should work with.
Ivory is worth more off elephants than on them and everyone in the world essentially knows that fact (except the people who gathered in Kenya, evidently.)
Of course, I could be wrong and Richard Leakey and others correct. It could be smarter to burn $150-million in ivory, guaranteeing that the elephants and rhinos died in vain, rather than sell it (like other countries do) and use the funds to fight poaching or potentially even support the scientists who are trying to create ivory in laboratories or even via 3-D printers.
It could be smarter to think that no one knows elephants are being poached and gosh, if we just tell them they are, then they will stop right away.
About a decade ago, I worked with Al Gore on his book Assault On Reason. For a long time, Vice President Gore thought that the oil companies didn’t realise that what they were doing was damaging the earth. As a smart, logical, passionate man, he thought that if he could just show them, they would stop and help.
He learnt that they knew. Just as the tobacco companies knew that cigarettes caused cancer. The profits are too lucrative for the oil companies not to fight back and deny, deny, deny. When he learnt that, he realised what the fight was really for. It wasn’t for awareness or to see the good side in the opposition, it was a fight to win against people who knew they were destroying the earth to make money.
Ivory takes a long time to burn. The piles in Kenya are still smouldering in the rain. Perhaps even the cynics who think that piles will not be completely burned but charred and cleaned up and then sold are right.
What is clear to me is that the elephants were already dead.
I understand the passion and the points of those who think it should have been burned. I don’t think it is logical or well thought – I think it’s naïve as well. But I do see that they believe in it.
Time will tell.
If everyone who watched the fires burn in Kenya is correct, poaching will instantly plummet and end. Awareness will never be higher of the burn as it is right now, today, so today poaching will stop in Kenya.
In China, people will stop purchasing ivory. They will gather in restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing and shake their heads, wondering how they never knew where the ivory they buy came from.
In Vietnam, in the markets of Old Hanoi, ground-up rhino horn will gather dust on the chemists’ shelves. No one seeking a radical cure for cancer or power for a Saturday night will buy any.
Terrorist groups will stop funding their activities with contraband horn. Criminal gangs will turn to new sources of funding. The ambulance from the Mara will only carry patients.
Kenya Wildlife Service will receive $50-million in new funding. Their rangers will be well-armed and well-paid, just in case. Another $100-million will be available, among other things, to expand the conservancies in Kenya into the Parmalat Hills ($3-million is being sought right now.)
If I am right, guns are being loaded right now in East Africa. Bribes are being paid to rangers and officials who can’t live on what they are paid. Villagers who subsist on $1 a day guide poachers to where the elephants are.
If I am right, shots are ringing out and elephants are going down. Now, though, with 5% of the world’s ivory stockpiles smouldering in downtown Nairobi, the price is higher and the profit even greater.
So we’ll see. But I think there will be burner remorse. I think people have to focus and fight for the elephants that are alive and not sacrifice what is left of those who have died for an awareness building exercise that will not change a thing. DM
James Cannon Boyce is a two time US Presidential Campaign Senior Advisor, MSNBC Democratic Strategist and top Huffington Post Blogger. James has recently opened on office of Common Sense in Cape Town. James is also the author of the soon-to-be-published book, "Floating" about his father's life and death in Burma.
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