Elephant ivory and rhino horn worth around $110 million were recently burned at the Nairobi National Park in Kenya. This ivory came from Kenya’s stockpile, which is now completely depleted. The stockpile had ivory that had either been seized from poachers or trader, or collected from animals who died naturally. This symbolic destruction is thought to strengthen the calls for a reduced demand in ivory, thereby reducing the urge for poachers to kill elephants and rhinos. Most of the demand for ivory comes from Asian countries, where it is considered an important ingredient in indigenous medicines.


This heavily publicized event is considered a milestone in modern conservations, as it sends a strong message on the need to preserve elephants. Yet the burning of ivory has been a contentious subject. Kenya set a trend in 1989 when then President Moi burned ivory in order to show the world that it was time to ban trade in it. On the other hand, some southern African countries have argued for regulated sale of their ivory stockpiles to raise money for conservation. While the cheers in support of the most recent burning are the loudest, others have raised questions as to whether it’s worth it.


The environmental effects of burning 105 tons of ivory have been highlighted, for instance. Burning needs fuel and wood, and it can pollute the environment. An unconfirmed estimate suggests that it will take 20,000 liters of fuel, or more, to keep the ivory pyres burning for long enough to destroy the ivory and rhino horn. Crushing the ivory is an alternative that has been used in the United States, the Philippines, and Thailand, however it is more labor intensive.


Then, it should also be noted that ivory does not burn. Although its outside layer may char, it remains intact on the inside. This means should the burnt exterior be scraped off, the ivory can be resold. The sensitive topic of what to do with ivory stockpiles is challenging. Keeping stockpiles is expensive and has been dismissed as ineffective. Yet burning them does costs the environment and may also be inefficient if criminal syndicates are given the chance to resell ivory recovered from the pyres.



Perhaps there is something to learn from Botswana, which currently has the the world’s largest elephant population. Botswana was among the countries that advocated selling its ivory stockpiles and has sold part of it in 1999 and 2008 to China and Japan. Rather than burning, the country erected a monument using ivory collected from elephants that had died naturally in its Gaborone international airport with the message that ivory belongs only to elephants.


Is burning ivory beneficial to the endangered African elephant? Does it send a message to poachers? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below or telling me on Twitter @rafeeeeta