Bring on the Burn!

Gabon ivory burn, June 2012 (c) Luc Mathot/Conservation Justice

This month marked the twenty fourth anniversary of the first ivory burn.

Many of the world’s governments are in possession of increasingly large stores of ivory, collected from seizures made by their police and customs agencies and, in the case of countries with elephants, from carcasses found with the ivory still intact. Despite the fact that this ivory is kept in official government stores, the widespread corruption means that these stockpiles are vulnerable to leakage, with ivory sold to traffickers by a small hardcore of corrupt officials. It is being increasingly accepted that destruction is the only viable long term solution to the stockpile question. This not only keeps the ivory out of the illegal market but also ensures that this ivory will never be made available for any potential future legal trade, sending a clear message to those who would profit from the plunder of wildlife, that ivory trade will not be tolerated.

The first symbolic ivory stockpile burn took place on the 19th July 1989, the year before the international trade ban came into force, in response to the loss of more than half of Africa’s elephants over the previous 10 years. Kenya’s President, Daniel Arap Moi, burned 12 tonnes of ivory, followed closely by two subsequent burns by Kenya in 1991 and Zambia in 1992.

Since 1997 certain countries have made sustained attempts to weaken the ban. In 1999, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were allowed an ‘experimental one-off sale’ of over 49 tonnes of ivory to Japan. Then in 2002, a further sale was approved, with auctions in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa finally taking place in 2008 and resulting in 105 tonnes of ivory being shipped to China and Japan. These sales not only resulted in a resurgence of demand but also gave the green light to illegal traders who once again had a means by which to launder their product. The syndicates which control the illegal supply of ivory maintain its supply through highly organised poaching networks and corruption at the African end, while continuing to stimulate demand and oil corruption at the ‘consumer’ end.

More demand means more poaching and since 2008, the rate of killing has begun to spiral out of control once again. In many areas, rates of poaching are now the worst they have been since the 1980s, and more recently governments have again turned to ivory burns as a means to remove ivory from trade, legal or otherwise, for good.

In July 2011 Kenya burnt 4.8 tonnes seized by the Lusaka Agreement Task Force in Singapore in 2002, and this was followed by the burning of Gabon’s 4.8 tonne stockpile in June 2012. Notably, just last month, the first large scale destruction of ivory (almost 5 tonnes) to be carried out by an Asian transit and consumer nation took place in the Philippines.

These actions, although hugely symbolic and powerful in their own right, actually represent the failure of the international community to bring the slaughter to an end. Instead of sanctioning further ‘one-off’ sales based on the faulty logic that trade is the solution to illegal trade, the situation calls for the international ban on trade to be reinforced, the imposition of national bans, the destruction of all stockpiles and the deployment of significantly greater resources both in the field and to customs and border agencies. Only this will send a clear message to the world: NO MORE IVORY TRADE!

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